May 11, 2023 - Economy

Airline issues leading cause for flight delays, federal data shows

Share of delayed flight minutes by cause
Data: Bureau of Transportation Statistics; Chart: Jared Whalen/Axios

Most flight delays in recent years have been caused by issues within the control of airlines, updated federal data shows.

Why it matters: The data released from the U.S. Department of Transportation contextualizes months of tensions between the department and the airline industry over recent travel headaches and a looming summer travel season that's expected to be hectic.

  • The friction came to a head earlier this week when the Biden administration proposed a rule change that would require airlines to compensate travelers and cover some of their expenses if the airlines are responsible for flight cancellations or significant delays.
  • The airline industry has opposed the proposal, with the International Air Transport Association arguing that it would raise air travel costs while doing little to address delays.

By the numbers: Flights were collectively delayed for more than 5.3 million hours between January 2019 and February 2023, according to Department of Transportation data.

  • 1.6 million flights, 5.8% of all flights, were delayed because of circumstances within an airline's control, like maintenance and crew problems, aircraft cleaning and baggage loading.
  • Delays caused by issues within the national aviation system, like the computer system outage in January 2023, delayed 1.3 million flights, or 4.7% of all flights in that time period.
  • 1.5 million (5.7%) of flights were delayed by an inbound aircraft arriving late, though the data does not state the reason for the late arrival.
  • Bad weather only delayed around 178,000 (0.65%) flights.
  • Over 776,000 planned flights (2.8%) were canceled, while more than 63,000 (0.2%) were diverted, though the data did not specify the causes that led to the changes.

Yes but: Over those 50 months, 21.9 million flights (79.8%) arrived on time, which was in line with on-time arrival statistics over the previous decade.

The big picture: Compared to data from January 2009 through December 2018, the FAA has been responsible for fewer flight disruptions in recent years.

  • Delays as a result of national airspace system disruptions fell by a percentage point from 5.7% to 4.7%.
  • Comparing those same two timeframes, delays from air carrier issues slightly rose from 5.3% to 5.8%.

Go deeper: Why airline flyers are fuming

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