News Column

United's On-Time Rate Up, but Still Falls Short of Peers

March 2, 2013

Gregory Karp

united airlines, on-time rate

As United Airlines approaches the one-year anniversary of a problem-plagued switchover to a new customer reservation system, the carrier seems to have finally exorcised those demons as it reported another month of meeting its on-time rate goal.

In February, Chicago-based United posted an on-time rate of 80.8 percent for domestic flights and 80.5 percent for international flights, exceeding its goal of 80 percent despite major snow storms in several of the airline's hub markets, United said. On-time arrival rates are based on flights arriving within 14 minutes of scheduled arrival time.

It marks first time in a decade that United achieved that goal during the first two months of the year, it said.

Still, United's performance doesn't match the more punctual airlines, which regularly post on-time rates of greater than 85 percent. For example, Delta Air Lines had a rate of 86.5 percent in 2012, and US Airways posted 85.9 percent, according to federal statistics. And the industry average for 2012 was nearly 82 percent.

"So what United essentially is telling us is, 'We're almost average,'" said Joe Brancatelli, a frequent critic of United and editor of

Still, United's recent performance stands in stark contrast to many months last year when its passengers suffered through rampant flight delays and customer-service frustrations after the airline combined United and Continental onto a common customer reservation system, the technology backbone of an airline. The airlines merged in 2010 but didn't combine many operations until that switchover on the evening of March 2, 2012. The switch affected everything from ticketing to combining the airline websites to merging frequent-flier programs.

Operational headaches got so bad that United began to lose customers, and its profits suffered, executives conceded to Wall Street analysts. CEO Jeff Smisek publicly apologized to customers several times. Performance hit a low point in July, when United ranked last among major U.S. carriers and fewer than two-thirds of its flights were on time.

United upgraded the user interface for the computer system and added training for gate agents and customer service personnel. It also increased airport staffing levels and added spare aircraft that could fill in when there was a plane-equipment problem.

United's domestic operations have averaged over 80 percent on time since last September.


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