America’s Riskiest Airlines, from American to Continental to JetBlue

The Daily Beast uses data from the Federal Aviation Administration to find which airlines make passengers suffer the most serious delays.

The American airline industry is mired in seemingly endless doldrums, with carriers ready to cut back on holiday service if the recession continues to shrink demand for flights. With more limited travel options, getting a seat on the right airline could mean the difference between being home for the holidays and spending them stuck in an airport.

To figure out which airlines have the best record in terms of on-time departures and arrivals, we culled tens of thousands of Service Difficulty Reports, submitted by airlines to the Federal Aviation Administration over a five-year span from July 2006 to July 2011, and found thousands of serious delays across the 13 major airlines with an annual operating revenue of more than $20 billion.

At their worst, these serious delays can include mid-air engine failures and unexpected airport diversions. At best, they might be an annoying delay caused by a faulty emergency light that requires a return to the terminal after leaving the gate.

For our purposes, a serious delay is a flight that experiences an unscheduled landing, an emergency descent, an aborted takeoff, a return to gate, or any other flight in the SDR database that explicitly describes an unscheduled landing or return to gate.

Because some delays are not attributable to airline error—Hawaiian Airlines, for instance, operates in a geography that sports clear skies most of the year and has a better than 90% on-time rate, by far the best of any of the major airlines—we also took into account what the NTSB defines as a delay directly attributable to an air carrier including, “maintenance or crew problems, aircraft cleaning, baggage loading, [and] fueling.”

Using three data points—serious delays, overall on-time performance, and air carrier delays, with data from the FAA and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics—we then used z-scores to determine the final ranking.