And the airport with the most punctual flights? Few will be surprised that it was Minneapolis-St. Paul, a large Delta hub, where 82.6 percent of flights left on schedule despite its snow-packed location.
An on-time flight is defined as one that arrives within 15 minutes of its scheduled arrival. Airlines supplied OAG with the data for its rankings, which only include carriers that provide information on more than 80 percent of their flights.
The on-time performance came during a challenging year for airlines. It kicked off with the outage of a key Federal Aviation Administration notification system in January that prompted the first nationwide halt in air traffic since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. A national air traffic controller shortage forced airlines to prune schedules. And severe weather disrupted flights in New York and elsewhere for multiple weeks straight over the summer.
What airlines did right in 2023
“Strong on-time performance results from Delta, American, United, and others point to a collective effort by the industry to overcome challenges,” OAG Chief Analyst John Grant said in a news release. He cited the operational issues airlines faced, as well as industry-wide maintenance and supply chain challenges.
After Delta, Alaska Airlines was the second most punctual among domestic carriers — and seventh worldwide — with 81 percent of flights arriving on time, OAG’s data shows. American Airlines flights were 79 percent on time, United Airlines nearly 79 percent, and Southwest Airlines nearly 76 percent. Spirit Airlines and JetBlue Airways rounded out the list of U.S. airlines in OAG’s rankings with 69.5 percent and 68.3 percent of flights, respectively, arriving on schedule.
Most U.S. airlines were more punctual last year than in 2022. Delta, Alaska and American improved by roughly two percentage points, while United performed about the same. Even laggard JetBlue improved by about four points.
Delta executives throughout the year praised the airline’s staff for its reliable operation. “Our people consistently deliver operational excellence with the relentless focus on raising the bar at every stage of the travel journey,” CEO Ed Bastian said earlier in January. The secret to on-time flights, however, runs deeper.
“The way you keep an airline on time is you schedule flights for a realistic amount of time, and have enough time on the ground between flights,” Atmosphere Research travel analyst Henry Harteveldt said. Delta, he continued, does both, scheduling flights for an appropriate duration and then providing enough time on the ground for staff to fully prepare planes for their next flight.
It helps that Delta’s busiest airports are Atlanta, Detroit and Minneapolis-St. Paul, none of which face the same level of congestion in the air or on the tarmac that plague many airports in the northeast and Florida.
What hurt airline reliability last year
Most flight delays in 2023 were airlines’ fault, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation — due to aircraft maintenance or a late crew, for example.
When a delay is the airline’s fault, they are responsible for accommodating travelers on another flight and, in some cases, offering meal or hotel vouchers, or even a refund. The DOT has a dashboard of travelers’ rights when airlines are responsible for the delay or cancellation.
But the shortage in air traffic controllers coupled with severe weather last summer played a significant role in punctuality last year.
In March, the FAA said national air traffic controller staffing was at 81 percent of target levels and, in the center that manages flights in and around New York City, at only 54 percent. As a result, it allowed airlines to cut flights by 10 percent at New York’s three main airports — John F. Kennedy International, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty — over the summer to minimize disruptions. Still, JetBlue faced 68 days of “significant operational disruption” in New York during the three months ending in September, airline President Joanna Geraghty said in an earnings call.
“Far worse September weather” and “unprecedented [air traffic control] restrictions” caused the disruptions, Geraghty said. Add to that the fact that a greater percentage of JetBlue’s flights than any other airline are in congested New York airspace, and the delays multiplied.
“If you are always driving on a congested highway, you are more prone to adverse conditions that might affect performance,” said Ahmed Abdelghany, associate dean in the David B. O’Maley College of Business at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. This means airlines flying in congested areas — like JetBlue in the northeast — are more susceptible to flight delays and cancellations.
Airports are all about capacity
Airport on-time rankings are largely outside of their direct control. Ones with plenty of capacity — runways, gates and other facilities to accommodate their full allotment of scheduled flights — are less likely to see delays than congested airports that operate near or at capacity, Abdelghany said.
Lack of congestion in the skies above is also important. For example, in New York, the FAA has very specific — and separate — routes for flights into and out of JFK, LaGuardia and Newark. If a direction is blocked by storms, one airport can see flight delays and cancellations spike while another continues to operate smoothly.
Then there is the simple fact that if an airport’s main airline is reliable, that airport probably is too. The three airports with the most on-time departures in the U.S. last year — Minneapolis-St. Paul, Seattle-Tacoma and Atlanta — are all Delta hubs. Charlotte and Reagan National Airport rounded out the top five.