April 30, 2014

Southwest adds time between flights to fix on-time problem

CEO Gary Kelly says he wants to see improvement in on-time performance, which lagged that of major rivals.

Southwest Airlines is falling behind when it comes to arriving on time, and the carrier will tinker with its flight schedule to fix that.

CEO Gary Kelly says the airline will add a few minutes between some flights and will be more cautious about selling itineraries with tight connections.

Southwest has long prided itself on being on time. It still ranks No. 1 all time among the six big airlines that have reported such records to the government since 1987. But it hasn’t topped the charts for a full year since 2001 and hasn’t beaten all the other major carriers since 2009.

Last year, Southwest fell to 12th place and behind all its closest rivals in size — United, Delta, American and US Airways — among 16 airlines that reported figures to the Transportation Department.

Only 76.7 percent of Southwest flights arrived within 14 minutes of schedule, the government’s definition of “on time.” That was down from 83.1 percent in 2012.

“We’ve got significant schedule changes that are planned for the summer,” Kelly said. “That’s when I want to be monitoring the on-time performance and making sure that we see the improvement that we need. We need to get back to where we were for 2012.”

Kelly made the comments to reporters Tuesday during a tour of Southwest’s new $120 million training building, which also houses an operations center where staffers will oversee the 3,600 daily flights operated by Southwest and its AirTran Airways subsidiary.

The on-time breakdown starts at the airport gate. Southwest was once legendary for turning around incoming planes and sending them back out in about 10 minutes. That “turn time” has slipped to about 30 minutes as planes have more filled seats and Southwest has added larger versions of the Boeing 737 and has entered congested big-city airports.

Compounding the problem last year, Southwest began packing more flights into the peak hours of the day when most customers wanted to fly. The move backfired.

“We tried to get a little more aggressive in 2013, and it probably is the cause of our dip in on-time performance,” Kelly said.

But, he said, customers like busy schedules that offer more itineraries. He added that improving the on-time rating must be balanced against the risk of losing revenue by failing to offer all the itineraries that passengers want.

“As long as we’re operating a full airplane,” Kelly said, “I don’t mind spending an extra minute or two turning it.”

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