Flyers have long assumed that flights sold by a major airline but operated by their regional partners would be less likely to show up on time.
They’re right, according to new information from the U.S. Department of Transportation, though passengers’ odds of finding themselves on a canceled flight remain relatively low even on regional carriers.
Last year, the Transportation Department began tracking airlines’ performance across all domestic flights sold using their brand, whether operated by the main carrier or a regional partner. A report released earlier this month provides the first full-year look.
Most travelers tend to focus on fare and schedule when booking tickets, not whether that United Airlines flight will actual be operated by a regional partner like Air Wisconsin Airlines or Republic Airways. But there is a difference.
Nationwide, flights operated by Delta Air Lines’ regional partners were a little more than four times more likely to be canceled than flights operated by Delta, according to a Tribune analysis of monthly Transportation Department data. At American Airlines and United, the percentage of regional partner flights canceled was between two and three times greater than for those of the mainline carrier.
The odds of any particular flight being canceled are still quite low: a little less than 1 percent of domestic 2018 flights at Delta, about 1.75 percent at United and about 2.76 percent at American. Even on the regional carriers, only about 1.6 percent, 2.4 percent and 3.7 percent of flights operated by Delta, United and American’s partners were canceled in 2018, respectively.
So why is there a gap at all?
When something like a major storm or runway closures limit the number of flights airlines can operate at an airport, regional flights are more likely to end up on the chopping block.
Giving priority to flights connecting hubs or big cities, international flights and those using larger aircraft — which tend to be run by the mainline airline — helps minimize the impact problems at one airport have on flights throughout the country, said United spokesman Charles Hobart.
Regional partners also tend to use smaller aircraft, meaning a cancellation affects fewer passengers. Their routes tend to have relatively frequent flights, providing opportunities to rebook those customers on later flights, said American spokeswoman Leslie Scott.
The passengers on each flight can also be part of the calculus. Delta said it considers whether a flight has a lot of passengers who might find a cancellation particularly disruptive, like people connecting to another destination, unaccompanied minors or loyal frequent flyers.
When it comes to delays, domestic flights on regional carriers for United, Delta and American were between 1.8 and 5.7 percentage points more likely to arrive 15 minutes late than flights operated by the main carrier, according to the Transportation Department’s report. Overall, about 83.2 percent of domestic mainline and regional Delta flights, 77.4 percent of American flights and 77.9 percent of United flights arrived on time last year.
At O’Hare, United and American were about as likely to arrive on time as they were at airports across the country, or slightly more punctual, according to the Tribune’s analysis. Delta, which operates fewer flights through Chicago than those carriers, was less likely to arrive within 15 minutes of the scheduled time at O’Hare than its average nationwide last year.
But there was also a bigger gap in the odds that a Delta flight arriving at one of Chicago’s airports would arrive on time, depending on whether it was operated by the carrier or one of its regional partners. In 2018, almost 80 percent of mainline domestic flights operated by Delta arrived on time at O’Hare, compared with just 67 percent for its regional partners. At Midway, about 88 percent and 79 percent of mainline and regional Delta flights arrived on time, respectively.
One factor could be that most of Delta’s regional flights at Chicago’s airports connect the city to airports in the northeastern U.S. that tend to struggle with delays, Delta said.
Shorter regional flights on small aircraft tend to have relatively quick turnarounds between trips, Scott said. A couple extra minutes on each leg can add up to a longer delay over the course of the day, which is why American is particularly focused on ensuring morning flights start the day on time, she said.
Regional flights also tend to have more passengers with connecting flights. American will wait a few minutes for passengers with tight connections as long as it doesn’t risk making customers miss flights on the other end, which could contribute to the slightly higher odds of a delayed arrival, Scott said.
So should travelers trying to minimize the risk of a delay or cancellation avoid flights operated by regional partners?
“It’s one factor, but it’s not necessarily the most important one in any given situation,” said Gary Leff, a travel expert who writes the View from the Wing blog.
Whether an itinerary allows enough time between connecting flights or stops in a city with a high risk of bad weather matters, he said. So does departure time, since flights leaving in the morning, before problems have a chance to stack up, tend to be more punctual.
For some travelers, avoiding regional flights has more to do with a reputation for being small and less comfortable than mainline flights. But the gap is narrowing, Leff said.
United recently announced plans to replace some 50-seat regional jets with a new version that has a first class cabin with more legroom and a self-serve beverage and snack bar.
Leff said he’s not surprised by a “convergence to the mean” — it has already been under way.
“The tiny regional jets people hate were once an improvement over the prop planes they used to hate,” he said.