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Northwest continues to struggle with on-time performance

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After a rocky on-time performance in August, according to official government figures, calculations by a private flight statistics company show Northwest improved in September, but still lagged the industry. (Photo courtesy of Northwest Airlines)
Government statistics this week showed Northwest Airlines had dismal on-time performance in August, which included the start of a mechanics strike. Industry experts said the airline would need to improve or risk losing customers. So Minnesota Public Radio took a look at privately compiled statistics for the month just ended, and found Northwest did improve. However, it remains the worst performer among major airlines.

St. Paul, Minn. — The U.S. Department of Transportation releases official airline performance information with a one-month delay. That's why we're just now learning that during August, only about 67 percent of Northwest flights arrived within 15 minutes of their scheduled time. This was a month when mechanics walked out on strike, and replacements took their place literally overnight.

Northwest's own data show the airline's performance often fell below its target both before and after the strike, though it hit a low point just before the walkout. It's a situation Northwest attributes to a slowdown by mechanics, and mechanics attribute to a shortage of spare parts.

Whoever gets the blame for August, it looks like things got better in September. An Oregon company, FlightStats, uses data from reservations systems, the FAA, and other sources to chart all flights by U.S. airlines, every day. While the methodology is somewhat different, FlightStats results generally reflect what is later reported by the government.

During three weeks in September, FlightStats says 76 percent of Northwest flights arrived on time. During the other week, 73 percent were on time.

But last year in September, the airline's official on-time performance was 86 percent. And throughout last month, Northwest ranked the worst among major U.S. airlines.

It's been damn near an hour, and they seem to not give a damn. So I'm an unhappy camper at this point. One hour to wait for luggage is ridiculous.
- Northwest traveler Bob Davis

Airline industry consultant Bob Mann says there's not much to explain the poor performance, aside from what he calls "the learning curve effect" of nearly 2,000 replacement mechanics.

"I don't think it's the mechanics per se," Mann says. "I think it's the combination of folks who are experienced -- but not necessarily with Northwest's schedule -- learning their schedule, and learning how to manage and minimize delays."

Mann says the airline should especially watch its number of onerously long delays. He says Northwest must improve to an on-time rate of 80 percent or more, or risk losing customers it badly needs during bankruptcy. He also believes, though, that the airline can and will pull this off as mechanics "find their feet."

A Northwest spokesman declined to comment on the FlightStats data. He said performance has steadily improved since the day the mechanics strike began, as indicated by charts on the company's Web site.

Tom Parsons, the CEO of travel Web site, says strike or no strike, it's not surprising to see Northwest having difficulty.

"Over the last five or six years, it has not been uncommon to see Northwest somewhere near the bottom in on-time performance," Parsons says.

Parsons says bankruptcy may actually help the carrier, because it can both run a lighter schedule and shed many of the older planes from its fleet that need frequent repairs.

In the meantime, Parsons says while delays may be a turnoff, it's hard for many travelers to choose anyone but Northwest.

"They do control certain parts of the U.S.A. If we look at Minnesota, they definitely have a big hand in your state. And surrounding states, too -- on many routes, they're the only ones flying," says Parsons.

Northwest says it has competition from low-cost carriers in 45 of the top 50 markets out of the Twin Cities.

At the Twin Cities airport, many travelers are inclined to let their own experience be their guide. Bob Davis, whose plumbing supply company sent him here from Huntsville, Alabama, said he'd flown Northwest twice in recent days and been very impressed.

"Right on time both trips. People have been good to work with, easy to get reservations online -- it's been a good experience," Davis said.

Business travelers like Davis, who are from outside a Northwest hub, are the ones Northwest is most likely to lose if service slips.

Some while later, after fruitlessly watching the baggage carousel, Davis beckoned the reporter back for what he called "a subsequent comment."

"It's been damn near an hour, and they seem to not give a damn. So I'm an unhappy camper at this point," Davis said. "One hour to wait for luggage for a whole flight (of people) is ridiculous."

Davis is already booked on another Northwest flight in two weeks. Officials at the bankrupt carrier can ill afford to lose his future business if things don't go smoothly.