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Air Canada lands last in on-time flights in ranking of North American airlines

Air Canada notched the worst on-time performance among 10 large airlines in North America in 2023, according to a new report.

The country’s biggest carrier landed 63 per cent of its flights on time last year, placing it last among the continent’s 10 largest airlines, according to Cirium, an aviation analytics firm.

That means roughly 140,000 planes rolled up to the gate more than 15 minutes after scheduled arrival.

The score was five percentage points below the second- and third-lowest carriers, JetBlue Airways and Frontier Airlines.

Canada’s other major airline, WestJet, placed seventh in North America with a score of 69 per cent.

The best results came from Delta Air Lines, which ranked first at 85 per cent, followed by Alaska Airlines at 82 per cent.

Comparably, a ranking of European counterparts placed Dutch carrier KLM in the 10th spot with a score of 76 per cent, 13 points higher than Air Canada.

Low ranking a ‘wake-up call’: expert  

Air Canada said the rankings reflect the challenges that affected carriers in Canada through the year. 

“However, our operation has been consistently improving so that by year-end our monthly on-time performance showed a double-digit improvement over July, a significant increase,” a spokesperson for Air Canada told CBC News in a statement, which noted that the company’s focus remains on “further raising” on-time performance in 2024. 

John Lawford, the executive director and general counsel of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) in Ottawa, said that the on-time percentage metric is one that matters a lot to consumers.

“It would seem to be a good wake up call for Air Canada to improve the on-time percentage,” Lawford told CBC News. “It would probably reduce their consumer delay and cancellation complaints as well, and to the extent that they can spend to do that, that’s what consumers would probably prefer.”

The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), an independent regulatory body that mediates and resolves disputes between airlines and passengers, has been working through a backlog of complaints.

The grievances, many of them against Air Canada, have piled up since a 2019 federal regulation changed compensation entitlements for passengers whose flights had been delayed by three hours or more. 

Air Canada has been offering cash and vouchers to settle with a selection of passengers who’ve made complaints through the CTA, though some consumers have said they’re being low-balled by the airline.

But the best way to avoid delay complaints, says Lawford, is to run the airline on time. 

CEO acknowledged low ranking

In the past, Air Canada has pointed to a shortage of air traffic controllers, bad weather and a network running at full tilt amid high demand, which can mean longer recovery times after a disruption.

CEO Michael Rousseau has acknowledged Air Canada’s relatively low ranking, including after a wave of flight delays in June and July.

Despite more staff and revamped technology, the carrier’s operations failed to meet “expected levels,” he told analysts on a conference call in August.

The chief executive identified “severe weather” — in particular thunderstorms — and global supply chain issues among the culprits.

“We’re spending a lot of time improving our on-time performance,” he said.

A white man in a suit speaks into several microphones from news agencies.
Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau has acknowledged the airline’s low ranking in on-time flights, saying in August that the carrier’s operations failed to meet ‘expected levels.’ (Bloomberg)

Rousseau cited April and May as “very solid” and the subsequent two months as worse, when about half of all flights were late.

He also acknowledged that high load factors — when all planes are almost fully booked — result in more “spilling traffic” when flights are cancelled, as passengers scramble to rebook with competitors and may arrive hours or days later than planned.

Weather plays a part in delays 

Other reasons can account for delays.

The cold weather in Canada means planes need to be de-iced as early as October, runways need to be cleared of snow, and landing and takeoff times are more spread out.

The frosty hurdles make achieving parallel on-time performance north of the border a challenge.

However, fairly mild temperatures across the country over the holidays meant that most passengers enjoyed smooth sailing.

That outcome stood in contrast to the tales of travel nightmares from 12 months earlier, when thousands of passengers saw their flights delayed or cancelled, largely due to poor weather.

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