Southwest Airlines' March Meltdown --- Less Than Meets the Eye

Last Updated May 17, 2010 5:05 PM EDT

If you looked through the Department of Transportation's latest Air Travel Consumer Report, one thing would stand out. Southwest Airlines (LUV) had a lot of chronically-delayed flights in March. While it was a tough month, the reality isn't nearly as dramatic as it looks on paper.

On time performance overall was just fine, but some of the flights that were late were always late. There were a total of 24 flights that were late more than 80 percent of the time in March and 20 of those were on Southwest. Southwest had 36 flights that were delayed more than 70 percent of the time.

These weren't just your usual LaGuardia and Philly flights, though five of them did fall in that category. These were unlikely subjects like Baltimore to Hartford and Houston to Albuquerque. Even Baltimore to Albany to Boston made the list. I can't imagine Albany has made any list like this when New York or Philly wasn't on the other end.

These also weren't just little delays. A Baltimore-LaGuardia flight averaged 97 minutes late. Even Baltimore-Hartford was averaging a 44 minute delay. That's pretty rough. So what happened?

According to Southwest spokesperson Christi Day, you can blame it on scheduling. A new schedule went into place on March 14 and the results were not pretty. Planes were scheduled too tightly and things just unraveled. The flights on the chronically late list operated 16 times and that's just above the threshold of 15 for inclusion on the list.

Southwest says, "It takes 8 to 10 operations to see the trend which would only leave us about 6 days to fix the problem." They fixed the problem quickly, but the damage for the month had already been done. For April, the airline will report "much improved" results.

This shows why you can't just take these government reports at face value. You need to look for trends over time, because anyone could have a bad month. This time, it was Southwest.

Photo via Flickr user TheeErin