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The Best and Worst U.S. Airlines of 2018



Delta Air Lines
            

      is flying in one direction,

            American Airlines
            

      in the other. While the Delta's operation was best among major airlines, American remains stuck in the bottom when measuring its reliability against rival airlines.

The largest carrier ended up next-to-last in the annual Middle Seat scorecard ranking of eight major US airlines. Only Frontier, dragged down by a controversial dispute with pilots, performed worse overall in 2018.

This is the 10th time in 11 years that the American end up last or next-to-last in the scorecard, which ranks airlines on seven operational measures important to travelers. American publications for 201

8 were worse than 2017 in five of the seven categories

The Wall Street Journal's annual ranking of eight major U.S. airlines tracks flight delays, mishandled baggage and formal complaints, so you do not have to. WSJ's Scott McCartney hands out the awards. Photo: Drew Evans / The Wall Street Journal.
    

Delta has been in the top three every year since 2010, when it was finished last. Over the past eight years, Delta has proven that a big airline can operate punctually.

Delta canceled less than 1% of its flights in 2018. American's cancellation rate was almost three times higher. Delta's rate of lost or delayed baggage was half as bad as American's. About 7% of Delta flights were late by 45 minutes or more.

Alaska placed second overall, trailing Delta mostly due to higher rates of mishandled baggage and involuntary bumping of passengers

Scorecard data come from the Transportation Department and from masFlight, the flight-data analytics unit

            Global Eagle
            

      which supplies services to airlines, cruise ships and others. (We do not include

            Hawaiian Airlines
            

      because it does not face the same mainland weather challenges.)

Frontier responded to questions about his last-place 2018 ranking with a statement saying "operational disruption" resulted from contract negotiations with his pilot union. Negotiations took more than two years. Pilots have been ratified and a new five-year contract last week. "While the disruption has been going on for longer than we expected, we are pleased to be starting 2019 with a ratified collective bargaining agreement with our pilots," said company spokesman Jonathan Freed.

            Spirit Airlines
            

      and a low-cost carrier known for its low fares and high fees, showed significant improvement after placing next-to-last the previous three years. Spirit ranked fourth in 2018. It had the lowest rate of mishandled bags and almost matched the Delta's rate of canceled flights

* JetBlue and United both ranked fifth in overall ranking

Sources: On-time, canceled flights and extreme delays data for full year 2018 from Global Eagle's masFlight Analytics Platform; includes regional affiliate flights and international; Two-hour tarmac delays, mishandled baggage and consumer complaints from the Transportation Department, based on 12 months ended in Oct .; DOT involuntary bumping based on 12 months ended September

Overall, last year was a challenging one for airlines and their passengers. This year may be even more turbulent if the government shutdown drags on and sporadic long security lines turn into major checkpoint meltdowns. In 2018, airlines did not run into big hurricanes like 2017, but last year persistent bad weather caused many delays at hub airports. United says nearly 7% of its flights during the year were affected by thunderstorms. Atlanta, the Delta's largest hub, had more than 70 inches of rain in 2018, the second-wettest year on record, according to the National Weather Service

 Delta replied as a champion in the Middle Seat scorecard rankings. </span><br />
          <span class=

Delta replied as a champion in the Middle Seat scorecard rankings



Photo:
            

        Nicolas Economou / NurPhoto / ZUMA Press
          

The eight major carriers included in the scorecard posted an on-time arrivals rate of 78.9%, down slightly from 79.6% in 2017, according to masFlight. The airlines canceled about 5,000 more flights in 2018 than in 2017.

The good news: Fewer bags were mishandled, fewer passengers were bumped from flights and fewer complaints were filed with the DOT

United ended up in the middle of the pack, in a tie with JetBlue for the fifth place. The carrier says its "controllable" cancellation rate-cancellations from airline problems, not weather-was the best in its history. But the weather weighed heavily on operations. Storms were more powerful and lasted longer, says Jim DeYoung, vice president of network operations.

"We're very happy with our performance in 2018," he says

Delta says it had 143 days without a single cancellation among its mainline and regional flights, up from 90 no-cancel days from 2017. In 2018, the airline saw only 55 flights canceled because of maintenance problems. In 2010, it had more than 5,000 maintenance cancellations, says Gil West, Delta's chief operating officer.

 Spirit, a low-cost airline known for cheap fares and high fees, significantly improved its operations last year, moving up from seventh place to fourth place among major carriers. Spirit was best in baggage handling and had almost the same rate of canceled flights as No. 1 Delta.

Spirit, a low-cost airline known for cheap fares and high fees, has significantly improved its operations last year, moving from seventh to fourth place among major carriers. Spirit was best in baggage handling and had almost the same rate of canceled flights as No. 1 Delta.


Photo:
            

        Saul Martinez / Bloomberg News
          

But the key to reliability last year, he says, was how each airline performed during bad weather. "Even though our weather has gotten worse, our gap to other carriers has increased quite a bit," Mr. West says.

One example: Delta spent more than $ 20 million last year to buy a dozen additional deicing trucks in Atlanta and build more deicing pads where airplanes get sprayed with chemicals that are collected in drains. That reduced cancellations and delays, Mr. West says.

"In one day, we'll save 100 cancellations during a deicing event in Atlanta." West says

American and United say their hubs have also hit hard by bad weather. Dallas-Fort Worth, the largest hub of America, had the second-wettest year on record, with record rainfall in February, September and October, according to weather service. The summer was also tough for American. In June, a long-term computer outage at a regional subsidiary piled up delays in Charlotte. In addition, engine fan blade inspections are required across the industry after a fatal accident on Southwest chewed up a lot of time for mechanics, delaying some nonessential summer prep work.

As a result, American says cancellations and delays from mechanical issues have increased. But Kerry Philipovitch, senior vice president of customer experience, has improved performance in the fall and during winter holiday periods. "It's not our plan to stay in last place" among the big three US carriers, she says.

 American finished next-to-last in the 2018 airline rankings. It was the 10th time in the 11-year history of the American rankings placed in the bottom two

American finished next-to-last in the 2018 airline rankings. It was the 10th time in the 11-year history of the American rankings placed in the bottom two


Photo:
            

        Christian Van Grinsven / SOPA Images / Zuma Press
          

American says it is taking a number of initiatives to improve. The carrier is standardizing procedures at airports to speed up unloading and reloading planes. It is also standardizing planes so that each 777-200, for example, has the same number of seats and can be used interchangeably when one breaks down.

"We are starting to see some really good traction with some of the initiatives that we've launched, "said David Seymour, American senior vice president of Integrated Operations.

American says it is still working through some aspects of integration with US Airways. Delta and United have merged with Northwest and United a number of years before American and US Airways combined, and American executives argue that this is a reason why operational improvement lags behind rival airlines

However, Delta and United have improved within four years of closing their respective mergers.

MORE FROM THE MIDDLE SEAT

Write to Scott McCartney at midseat@wsj.com


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