Consumers usually turn to the US Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Bureau of Transportation Statistics for information about US airline on-time performance, cancellations and other operational data.  How much should we trust this data and claims based thereon?  Personal experience makes me wonder.

I was scheduled to fly from Singapore (SIN) to Tokyo, Japan (NRT) on Delta Flight 166.  Arriving at SIN in the wee hours of the morning on November 7, 2017, after a fantastic business-class flight on a Singapore Airlines 777-200, what seemed to be bad news awaited.

DL 166 cancelled

At the transfer desk in Terminal 2, Delta Station Manager Koh left “goodie bags” and an explanatory letter stating that the cancellation was the result of a “technical fault” of the airplane, which was still at NRT.

Goodie bag
In fact, DL 166 never flew on November 7, 2017.

What seemed like a potentially fatal blow to making the flight from NRT to DTW in a Delta One Suite turned into a godsend when Delta rebooked me in business class on an ANA 787-9 that arrived at NRT 10 minutes earlier than the scheduled time for DL 166.  Sometimes life is good.

Trading the worst Delta One seat in the system (767-300) for a far superior seat and aircraft, an ANA 787-9 (in essence, a free upgrade from Delta One to ANA business-class seats and service) — “No problemo.”

ANA 787-9 forward business-class cabin
ANA 787-9 business class loo with a view

So everything was fine until I saw that Delta later bragged that it had no flight cancellations for the entire month of November.  Huh?  Was that claim based on information it reported to the DOT?  DOT reports information on airline operations solely within the US states and territories.  Therefore, if based purely on DOT information, Delta’s no-cancellation claim could have been correct, as far as I knew.

But on the contrary, Delta’s December 4, 2017, press release says that the previous month there were no mainline cancellations system wide.  Delta qualifies this assertion in a footnote to that release:

Delta operated 16 mainline international flights on a delayed basis during the month via substitute flights using Delta aircraft with an alternate flight number.

WTF?  Even if Delta flew some aircraft with probably a handful of passengers, if any, hours after a scheduled flight was to depart that still sounds a hell of a lot like 16 cancelled flights to me!  And for all of the passengers, like me, who were accommodated on flights on other airlines, it sure as bleep felt like a flight cancellation.


This episode leaves at least three simple yet important takeaways.

  • First, as a general rule, advertised airline operational claims are suspect, especially those based on “internal” statistics that might be subject to incentive goals.
  • Second, operational statistics have little meaning without knowing the source of the supporting statistics and the methodology for compiling them.  What is included and excluded, i.e. read all footnotes.
  • Third, as US airlines rely more and more on international operations for growth and more Americans fly internationally, it is in the interests of consumers and the DOT for the DOT to report operational statistics uniformly on a system-wide basis.

I don’t know how it is done abroad, but reporting operational statistics for an airline like Lufthansa or Emirates would be a joke if it only included operations within Germany or the U. A. E., respectively.  There are several organizations that compile international statistics but they employ different methodologies to certain extents.  It would be nice if the DOT could establish an “apples to apples” database with which consumers could compare airline operations globally as well as domestically.