What are the little secrets your airline keeps?


How often is your no-name regional airline late? How many bags does your “ultra” low-cost carrier lose?

Remarkably, that’s been absolutely none of your business, according to the airlines and the federal government. Until now.

The Department of Transportation, which regulates domestic airlines, wants to overhaul the way smaller carriers report their key performance statistics. The changes promise to offer a glimpse into the secrets little airlines and regional carriers keep, and although they should change the way you choose your next flight, they might not.

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Now, any airline that accounts for at least 1% of domestic scheduled passenger revenue must report on-time performance, oversales and mishandled baggage rates. But under a proposed rule change being considered by regulators, that number would be lowered to half a percent.

The current exemption effectively allows airlines such as Allegiant and Spirit to avoid submitting their stats to the government, so passengers are left to wonder about their on-time arrivals and departures, or how often they misplaced luggage. The new regulations would remove some of the guesswork.

“I would love to see that happen,” says Brenda McCrary, who works for a college in Carrollton, Ga. Like others, she’s curious to see how these smaller airlines stack up to the big boys.

Neither Allegiant nor Spirit responded to requests for comment on the rule change, but Airlines for America, a trade organization for the U.S. airline industry, said it supported the new regulation. Perhaps that’s because the disclosure might make its largest members, the three remaining legacy carriers, look a little better.

But the Transportation Department also wants to change the way all airlines report their “mishandled” luggage, from an abstract, lost-luggage-per-1,000-passengers figure, to a more concrete “mishandled” number that would compare the number of lost bags with the total number of bags checked.

Additionally, the government wants all reporting airlines to break out performance data for their domestic scheduled flights operated by code-share regional partners. Those are the generic little airlines that have their tails painted to look like they belong to a bigger airline, but that actually belong to a different company. In the past, large airlines didn’t have to tell you everything about their code-share partners.

How would these smaller airlines do? Not too well, say experts. When it comes to on-time statistics, airlines such as Allegiant and Spirit would lag behind their larger competitors, predicts Seth Kaplan, editor of the trade publication Airline Weekly. That’s mostly for operational reasons, in part because of their flight frequency and in part because of their route map.

But that’s not all. Spirit and Frontier, two smaller “ultra” low-cost airlines, generate a lion’s share of complaints, relative to number of passengers, according to a recent study by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, which analyzed five years’ worth of DOT data.

“Each year, Spirit’s passengers were about three times as likely to file a complaint as the second-place airline, and its complaints volume is trending upward over time,” the report concluded.

That raises the question of whether passengers are complaining about airlines such as Spirit because of its scandalous — and to many, unconscionable — fees (it charges $100 for a carry-on bag checked at the gate) or because of its under-performance. Once the new DOT regulations are approved, and the new rules go into effect, we’ll know.

But what will air travelers do with this data, which will be reported on the DOT website monthly? Oddly, not much. That’s because performance is only part of the booking decision. Price, convenience and customer service are also key considerations.

Yes, service. Diane Schenker, a project manager for the state of Alaska, says she loves to fly on a small carrier called Ravn. Its flights are often delayed, and she sometimes must trudge in subzero temperatures to board her plane. But she’s exempt from TSA screening because of the airline’s size, and, as a bonus, the service is friendly, and they dole out cookies in-flight.

“I could not care less about Ravn’s timeliness,” she says. “They are pleasant, not abusive, and flying with them has made travel once again the TSA-free pleasure that it used to be.”

Of course, reporting the performance of smaller airlines is important. But not as important as prompt and courteous service.

Wouldn’t it be great if they could regulate that?

Should smaller airlines be subject to the same reporting requirements as big ones?

View Results

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How to get the lowdown on your airline

Leave a comment in support of this rule. You can view and comment on the rulemaking by visiting regulations.gov (search for DOT-OST-2014-0056).

Find out what’s already available. Many regional carriers, such as SkyWest and ExpressJet, already report to the DOT. The department also reports on complaints from smaller airlines, such as Spirit. Get more information at dot.gov/airconsumer.

Get “unofficial” data. If you’re thinking of booking a flight on one of these smaller “mystery” airlines, ask a trusted travel agent, a well-traveled friend or search your favorite travel site to find out about real experiences.

8 thoughts on “What are the little secrets your airline keeps?

  1. Point to Point routes. Who really cares if they are late a little bit. There are no transfer and connecting flight issues. So less bags to lose. Allegiant and Sprit have one of the cheapest fares in America especially if you don’t have luggage and can abide by their rules.

  2. I don’t like the way Spirit is picked on. I fly them often between Fort Lauderdale and Myrtle Beach and I think they run a good airline. It is so far superior to the legacy carriers as to be laughable. The fares are good, the airline seems to be quite transparent about its fees and the cabin staff are head and shoulders above any other domestic airline. My biggest complaint about Spirit is not really about them but the abominable condition at FLL. The County Commissioners of Broward County never miss an opportunity to tout their good deeds but Terminal 4 at FLL is a pigsty and over crowded to the maximum. Food is awful and scarce, not enough bathrooms and some of the worst TSA people I have yet run across.

    Why don’t we get more upset with Delta, American, and the others than this well run little low cost airline?

  3. I’ve flown Allegiant and I have no complaints about their service and their fees. I have not encountered any checked baggage problems. Spirit is totally different animal. Where Allegiant’s route system can get you between points between which no other airlines offer non-stop service, Spirit tends to serve major airports and duplicates routes flown by competing carriers. For example, of the 35 destinations served by Allegiant from St. Petersburg-Tampa Airport (PIE), 33 of them do not have nonstop service from Tampa International (TPA). The other two cities have only one flight each day by a major carrier. Allegiant usually only flies between city pairs 2, 3 or 4 times each week. Leisure passengers can usually adjust their schedules to fit those of the airline.

    Spirit often flies routes between major airports in competition with other carriers. For example they fly once each day from TPA (not PIE) to DFW. Depending on the day of the week that you fly and how many extras they can charge you for, the total fare can be greater than that of AA. At least AA doesn’t charge for putting a bag in the overhead or nickle and dime you for soft drinks and peanuts. As mentioned in the article, Spirit’s record when it comes to checked bags is abysmal.

    In summary, Allegiant and Spirit both have fare structures that lead to a fare that is higher than the quoted base fare. The major difference is that Allegiant can take you non-stop between two cities that the competition would force you to make one or two plane changes to get there. Spirit.flies many routes that other airlines already cover and their fares tend to be about the same as or more than competitors. Oh, one last thing just came to mind. The coach seat pitch in other carriers’ Boeing 737-700 aircraft is about 31″. Spirit’s is 28″. That means you can possibly pay a higher fare and yet have your knees against your chest.

    1. Yup, Allegiant one-way LAX to HNL fare is less than half the cheapest legacy airline one-way fare. Why complain?

  4. I voted “yes,” because in an industry such as the airlines, who received major financial support from the government, such statistics should be public information.

    Having said that, it seems lateness is only useful information where there is a choice of airline companies. Smaller carriers usually service smaller communities where competition
    doesn’t exist. If Spate Air is the only carrier servicing flights from Podunk to Squeedunk, the information isn’t particularly useful.

  5. ok for all you idiots that voted yes above, do you also want to pay much higher fares, so some small airline can employ more paper shufflers, or do nothing productive at all ? Or worse, go broke because of the bureaucratic burden.
    Be very careful, what you wish for !!!

    This is exactly what has happened recently in Australia. Small carriers are folding left, right & centre & guess what, some towns now have no air service whatsoever & the ones that do, have to pay more, a lot more, as either no competition, or local airports need to pay airlines a subsidy to fly there.

    Thanks to useless bureaucracy, they had to employ safety officers. Did they assist in improving safety ? No just like the U.S. TSA they were totally useless but very expensive.

    1. Thank you for calling me an idiot. BTW the Aussie economy is very different from the US. I doubt having to complete a monthly form will drive anybody out of business. However the published results just might.

      1. No worries. Someone had to say it.
        Minimum wages/salaries are much higher in OZ than USA.
        To employ 1 person to “fill in forms” might cost AUD$100K/year (USD494k) + all the add on costs, plus 1 person is probably not enough.

        You’d waste time of another 1/2 dozen people who are trying to keep the airline going.

        Complete waste of time, as numbers can also be easily manipulated.

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