It’s no secret that I’m no fan of United Airlines. But fresh data pulled together by Nate Silver and the team at FiveThirtyEight brings newly justified meaning to United’s position at the bottom of a sinking barrel.
When not predicting presidential elections or hedging sports bets, Nate Silver likes to figure out which airlines, airports, and routes are most likely to get you where you’re going on-time. Their interactive flight data visualizer takes flight statistics collected by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), which no one else even knew was a thing, and creates a nice little map showing how average travel times vary based on which airport and airline you fly.
You can read their analysis here.
Now this data isn’t all that useful for planning your day-to-day travel. For example, knowing that flights depart from LGA an average of two minutes later than from EWR probably won’t influence your decision on which airport to fly from, especially since they both generally suck anyways.
But what is interesting is to quantitatively see how United finishes last in nearly everything. They are, for example, the airline with the highest percentage of delayed flights in 2014, with 28% of all flights arriving at least 15 minutes later than scheduled.
No surprise there, but wouldn’t you know that United also boasts the highest proportion of cancellations, delays lasting longer than 2 hours, and diverted flights. So not only do you have an almost 1 in 3 chance of being delayed when flying the friendly skies™, you are more likely to see a brief annoyance escalate into a nightmare scenario than if you were flying any other airline in the country.
But wait, there’s more!
Have you ever wondered why actual flight times are often shorter than what’s scheduled? For example, a commuter flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles might say it’ll depart at 9:00am and arrive at 10:30am – when you’re only actually in the air for less than an hour. Well, that’s partly because airlines like to pad their arrival times to maintain their “on-time” percentages at a passably acceptable level.
And would you like to know which airline pads their schedules the most? If you guessed United, you’d be absolutely correct!
So essentially, United fudges their scheduled arrival times the most (which would theoretically make it easier to stay on schedule) – and still manages to score the worst in on-time performance.
I guess at the end of the day these numbers aren’t that shocking. It’s not like United’s suddenly fallen off its golden pedestal. They’re the worst in overall customer satisfaction, the worst in kicking people off oversold flights, and until recently, the worst in making any money. Even when they try to say sorry, they’re the worst. United employees are also not a fan. In my opinion, they have the worst brand identity. In the opinion of many others, they have the worst CEO. They are, by nearly every definition, literally the worst.
But the FiveThirtyEight team has somehow managed to add yet another line-item to United’s list of worsts: United Airlines is the slowest airline in America. Nate Silver accounts for the fact that some airports suck more than others (EWR and ORD, both United hubs, are among the worst) and generously assumes this is not the airlines’ fault. But even after adding runway times to target route times for a more accurate measure of on-time performance, United ranks – you guessed it – flat last.
I’m neither smart nor informed enough to intelligently discuss why United Airlines is so terrible. At this point, I just take it as a fact of life. The sky is blue. The grass is green. United sucks a lot – and will lose your baggage too!
United does have something to look forward to in 2015. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics will receive on-time data from Spirit Airlines for the first time this year. I hope United and Spirit can keep each other company. It sure must be lonely down there.