The Brancatelli File


There was widespread, noisy dissatisfaction with the airline industry's performance in 1999.
To avert Congressional action,
the major carriers invented their voluntary "Customer First" initiatives. They were hogwash and legally meaningless, but they were the talk of the summer and fall of 1999. With much fanfare, the initiatives went into effect on December 15. The next day, I published a column that focused instead on United's particularly bad 1999 performance and its propensity for blaming passengers for its miserable on-time record and high lost-baggage rates. Even in an industry excoriated for lousy service, United was hitting astonishing lows. The airline kept blaming travelers for its woes--we were carrying on too much baggage, we weren't in our seats early enough before departure--but the truth was that United was unraveling. Wall Street security analysts could see no evil--United told them there was no evil, so they ignored the facts--but investors were souring on United. Its stock, which had been trading north of $100 a share in the palmy days, was selling at around $65 by the end of 1999. -- J.B.



December 16, 1999 -- It is yesterday's news that the nation's major carriers have begun implementing their cynically self-aggrandizing "customer service" initiatives. We needn't waste another electron on these rhetorical irrelevancies because the airlines have already admitted that the plans are non-binding and unenforceable and leave passengers without rights, recourse or recompense.

So instead of recapping the specifics of promises that the carriers have no intention of keeping, let's focus on some startling statistics--and egregious excuses--from the last year.

It was a year ago that we were first confronted by the tyrannical templates, those rigid devices meant to police the size of our carry-on bags. Championed by United and Delta, these contraptions were supposedly created to improve on-time performance.

As you'll recall, most airlines were blaming their dreary on-time ratings on us, claiming planes were running late because we were carrying too many bags that were too large to fit in overhead bins. If only we piggish business travelers would accept templates and check our bags, Delta and United promised flight delays would be a thing of the past.

Well, guess what, fellow travelers? Templates and carry-on bags don't make a damned bit of difference to on-time performance. We now have proof in the form of a year of cold, hard and irrefutable numbers.

As you can see from the chart below, United's on-time performance was below the industry-wide average during ten of the last twelve months. Worse, United consistently turned in a poorer on-time performance than Continental, which vehemently opposes templates and has enlarged its overhead bins to accommodate extra carry-on bags. United was obsessively installing templates last year while Continental was urging

flyers to carry on everything but the office watercooler, yet United somehow finished below Continental during ten of the last twelve on-time rating periods. Worst of all, United set records for losing the bags it forced us to check. During each of the last twelve months, United finished last or next to last among the ten major carriers in baggage-handling efficiency.












OCT 99

79.7% (5)

77.7% (7)

79.1% (6)


3.47 (1)

4.35 (7)

5.26 (10)


SEP 99

77.9 % (6)

80.2% (4)

75.7% (8)


3.31 (2)

3.81 (5)

5.11 (10)


AUG 99

75.1% (6)

77.7% (5)

71.6% (7)


4.25 (4)

4.67 (5)

6.50 (10)


JUL 99

67.4% (8)

74.0% (3)

69.9% (7)


5.15 (4)

4.99 (3)

7.09 (9)


JUN 99

68.4% (7)

72.2% (4)

69.2% (6)


5.20 (5)

3.87 (1)

7.54 (9)


MAY 99

73.9% (6)

79.1% (4)

73.5% (8)


3.69 (3)

3.79 (4)

6.35 (9)


APR 99

78.4% (3)

78.0% (4)

70.9% (9)


3.55 (1)

3.97 (3)

7.08 (10)


MAR 99

79.3% (4)

78.7% (5)

78.6% (6)


4.11 (3)

4.29 (4)

7.72 (10)


FEB 99

82.1% (2)

80.3% (5)

78.4% (6)


4.28 (4)

4.25 (3)

7.71 (10)


JAN 99

71.5% (2)

70.6% (3)

66.3% (7)


8.49 (6)

7.63 (5)

11.27 (9)


DEC 98

79.5% (1)

76.0% (4)

72.9% (7)


5.96 (3)

5.06 (2)

11.55 (9)


NOV 98

81.5% (7)

84.3% (4)

80.6% (8)


3.83 (4)

3.50 (3)

6.35 (10)


KEY: The chart is based on data contained in the Department of Transportation Air Travel Consumer Report. The "on-time" figure means the percentage of flights arriving within 15 minutes of scheduled arrival time at 29 airports. The baggage figure indicates the number of reports of "mishandled bagged" filed per 1,000 passengers. The numbers in parentheses indicates a carrier's rank among the nation's 10 major airlines. The "average" is the average performance recorded by all 10 carriers. The numbers in red indicate performance below the industry-wide average.

United's template partner, Delta, performed only slightly better. Delta has consistently registered an on-time rating above the industry average, but it has not outperformed Continental. In fact, the two carriers are dead even in timeliness. In six monthly rating periods, Delta bested Continental. Continental bettered Delta during the other six months.

Of course, we knew that carry-on bags had nothing to do with on-time performance before United and Delta began installing those hateful templates. And United, at least, is now paying for its arrogance. In February, it was forced to launch a crash program to enlarge the overhead bins on its Boeing 737s and 757s. Then, in late May, United began modifying the size of its templates to accommodate a wider selection of carry-on bags.

But such humbling failures did not stop United and some other airlines from continuing to shift the blame for their inability to run on-time flights. In April, United concocted a new reason why we were at fault. Now, United claimed, we weren't onboard, buckled up and ready to depart early enough to accommodate timely departures. The resulting "Time to Go" campaign demanded we be in our seats 10 minutes before scheduled departure and ordered the jet doors closed five minutes later.

United's fatuous "Time to Go" program didn't improve on-time performance, either. In all seven months since United launched "Time to Go," the airline registered an on-time rating below the 10-carrier industry average.

This time, United's partner in the shift-the-blame game has been US Airways. Plagued by self-created operational snafus, US Airways' on-time performance has skidded in the last year. But rather than admit its own errors, US Airways blamed us. On June 15, it launched "10-5-Take-Off," a clone of "Time to Go." As you have already guessed, "10-5-Take-Off" didn't help. US Airways ranked eighth or ninth out of ten in the monthly on-time ratings during the four full months since "10-5-Take-Off" was launched. Over those four months, US Airways' on-time performance ranged from 4 to 8 percentage points below the industry average.

In recent weeks, the airlines have found still another scapegoat to blame for their on-time incompetence. The airlines now say the real culprit is the nation's admittedly stressed air-traffic control (ATC) system. But blaming ATC is so patently absurd that one lone air-traffic controller recently needed only a few minutes before Congress to expose the airlines' deceit.

So who or what will the airlines blame next for their on-time incompetence? Well, would it really surprise you if next month the airlines start claiming their planes are running late because they were forced to implement those customer-service initiatives yesterday?

After all, what else could it be?

This column originally ran at This annotation originally appeared at in December, 2002.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.