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How United Airlines Fights Back Against Newark Airport’s Delay Trap

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Newark Airport has long been a trouble spot among U.S. airports, known for ground stops and every other conceivable sort of air traffic control delay.

Yet surprisingly, United, which operates the largest New York area hub at Newark, has apparently devised a method to start to overcome the impediment of operating at Newark.

At Newark, during the first eight months of the year, only 75.3% of all flights arrived on time, the second worst on-time percentage for any major U.S. airport, according to statistics compiled by the Global Gateway Alliance, which advocates for improvements at NY airports. The statistic tracks arrivals within 14 minutes of schedule.

But United’s Newark arrivals were on time 78.6% of the time, according to the carrier. That is three points ahead of the average, even though United accounts for about three quarters of the flights, meaning other airlines at Newark did far worse than United.

“Since they are 75% of Newark, it amazes me that they can be that much better than the average,” said aviation consultant Bob Mann. “Everyone else must be a disaster.

Other airlines “don’t take Newark as seriously as United does,” Mann said. “They just use that airport as a spoke {not a hub}, so they have less incentive to {improve} there.”

United has focused over the past year and a half on restoring its on-time performance, which deteriorated markedly following the 2010 merger with Continental.

As recently as the third quarter of 2015, United ranked 10th among 13 carriers with 79.3% of flights on time, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Yet United improved to 4th of 12 for the 12 months ending Aug. 30. The carrier says its third quarter on-time performance was the best in its history.

Although it acted later them most competitors, United has made all the same changes most of them have made to improve on-time performance. It has increased flight times in order to accommodate delays at congested airports such as Newark. It continually analyzes boarding processes and aircraft turn times. And it works to ensure that regional partners comply with the same rigorous on-time standards as mainline.

But at Newark, United does more. “When you have hub-centric carriers, you have hub-centric thought,” Mann said. “The tends to influence the way you schedule.”

What is most unique about United’s Newark operation, is that “about 70% of our flying is out and back,” said United spokesman Charles Hobart said. The operational structure isolates the delays that do occur rather than to have them cascade throughout the carrier’s overall operations.

Additionally, at Newark, “we have a bigger focus on turning aircraft quickly and more efficiently,” Hobart said. Also United’s regional partners at Newark arrived on time 73.3% of the time during the first eight months of the year, “one of the best A14 numbers we’ve had,” he said.

“Our operations control understands the challenges inherent to flying in the New York area,” Hobart said. “We can’t build a schedule to accommodate an extra hour of a ground delay program, but we have built in time to absorb day to day variations in air traffic congestion. That gives us time later in the day to reduce delays that may have occurred on earlier flights.”

Besides tracking its arrival numbers at Newark, United also tracks its departure numbers. But its internal methodology tracks a wheel movement metric, rather than DOT’s brake release metric, so its statistics are not comparable to DOT statistics.

Why don’t other airlines do the same thing at Newark that United does?

It costs money to allocate select aircraft to out-and-back Newark routes with delays built in to the schedules, which means more time on the ground for the aircraft, which generate revenue only when they are flying. A full commitment also means ensuring spare aircraft and extra crews are available when needed.

In fact, it is difficult to know whether United’s extra spending on Newark results in extra revenue.

“There is no agreement on what a perceptually superior service level is worth,” Mann said. “You think that corporate customers, the high frequency and premium buyers, will notice it in a favorable way and that you will retain them and find more people like them due to the perceptually superior service you provide.

“You end up adding more assets, you add spares and you cut {aircraft} utilization,” all expense items, Mann said. “You do this for a reason, not just to do it.”

Updated: November 2, 2016 — 11:47 am

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