Mar 23, 2023 - Economy

December's air travel meltdown was exactly as bad as it seemed

Share of flights departing on time from  U.S. airports
Data: BTS; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Just 69.1% of domestic U.S. flights departed on time in December 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

  • That's down from 75.2% year over year, and from 78.6% in December 2019 (before the COVID-19 pandemic), per recently released data from the department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS).
  • That figure is generally between 75%-80% in a typical month, albeit with predictable dips in the busy — and often meteorologically challenging — summer and winter travel seasons.

Driving the news: The real story in December was, of course, Southwest Airlines' epic meltdown.

  • Just 57.3% of Southwest's December flights departed on time, compared to 77.2% for Delta Air Lines, 72.5% for American Airlines and 70.7% for United Airlines.
  • Southwest's struggles dragged down the average for all carriers reporting data to BTS.

Zoom in: Denver International Airport, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport posted some of the country's worst on-time performance rates in December, at 57.4%, 61.7% and 66.4%, respectively.

  • Denver is one of Southwest's busiest airports, exposing its overall on-time performance to any issues at that particular airline.
  • Only 45.6% of Southwest flights out of Denver left on time in December.
  • Weather and staffing issues in Denver, in fact, helped trigger Southwest's broader systemwide mess.

Yes, but: All indications so far suggest Southwest has recovered nicely since December, though BTS' data reports lag by about three months.

  • The airline has promised to update key systems that exacerbated December's meltdown, as well as better communicate with passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled in the future.

What they're saying: "We spend a lot of money on technology and recently put in a new state-of-the-art maintenance system, a new reservation system and a new human capital workday system," Southwest CEO Bob Jordan told Axios' Eleanor Hawkins.

The bottom line: December was truly just as bad as it seemed, the data shows.

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