Spirit Airlines shows a big jump in on-time rankings

Justin Bachman
Bloomberg News

The airline that passengers love to hate is figuring out how to arrive on time.

Spirit Airlines Inc. rose to third place in the Department of Transportation’s monthly tally of U.S. airlines’ on-time performance in October, with 87.2 percent of its flights arriving within 14 minutes of their scheduled time. That placed it ahead of larger Alaska Air Group Inc., which was No. 4. Since punctuality has been a major part of Alaska’s customer appeal, can warmer feelings be far off for Spirit?

Overall, the airline industry posted an 84.8 percent on-time rate in October, and 79.7 percent for the past year.

Spirit Chief Executive Officer Bob Fornaro has made schedule reliability a cornerstone of his efforts to revamp operations at the discount carrier, seeing it as a pathway to better service, fewer complaints and more repeat customers. Under Fornaro, who took over in early 2016, Spirit has also deployed a new website, new software tools to rebook passengers and a more active social media strategy to engage with customers.

While Spirit is making headway, it still hasn’t emerged from the passenger doghouse. It remains the industry-leader in terms of customer complaints, with 3.84 nasty notes per 100,000 passengers, a category where, in October, the industry average was at 1 per 100,000 passengers. Also, one good month does not a great reputation make. Florida-based Spirit remains tenth in on-time performance over the prior 12 months, with 76.1 percent of its flights on time by that measure. Hawaiian Holdings Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc. are first and second respectively when it comes to on-time performance over the past 12 months.

Spirit experienced a dramatic reliability meltdown this spring after pilots began declining trips to protest the lack of a new contract; police were summoned to the Fort Lauderdale airport to quell a revolt by hundreds of passengers enraged by Spirit’s flight cancellations.

“Our commitment to improve our guests’ experience is dependent on our operational performance, and we have dedicated ourselves to continuing to match and exceed the industry standards for on-time performance,” Greg Christopher, a Spirit’s vice president, said in a November press release heralding the October improvement.

Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time record, and Delta was No. 2.

At the back of the punctuality pack is Virgin America, which came in at 73.3 percent for October and 69.1 percent for the prior 12 months. The carrier, which Alaska acquired last year, has about 85 percent of its network based at San Francisco and Los Angeles, along with a sizable presence in Seattle, Alaska spokeswoman Ann Johnson said by way of explanation. Those three airports have seen increased congestion at peak times, along with runway repairs and construction at the two largest California airports, she said.

In 2018, the DOT will add another U.S. ultra low-cost carrier, Allegiant Travel Co., to its monthly rankings, which cover carriers with at last 1 percent of domestic passenger revenues.