The On-time Flights Battle Between Virgin and Qantas

1st Aug 2012

Both Virgin Australia and the flag carrier Qantas wouldn't concede as to who claims the country's most punctual airline. But official statistics released last week show a picture that hardly tells the winner.

Officials from Qantas claimed that the airline bagged the crown to have the most on-time schedules of all its flights for three years in a row. Quickly after that, an official from Virgin Australia debunked the claims of Qantas and asserted that Virgin is the true winner, outperforming the flag carrier including its co-branded airlines as well as its affiliate airlines.

That conflicting claims of both airlines is confusing, to say the least. To see a much clearer picture, let's take the official figures, analyse them and find out who gave a wishful thinking and who gave the exact numbers.

Both airlines are using the official numbers in various ways to appear that the figures show in their favor. As seen through careful analysis, several reasons were found to be employed by both airlines so as to make the claim.

Dicing the BITRE data

The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE) is the source of the raw data used by both sides. Among BITRE's jobs is to generate reports each month on aviation statistics including on-time performance of all major airlines operating in the country.

Aside from the two competing giants, Qantas and Virgin Australia, six other regional and domestic carriers also made it into the BITRE report including Jetstar, QantasLink, Rex, Skywest Airlines, Tiger Airways and Virgin Australia ATR/F100 Operations.

The comparison between the two giants has been magnified with the exclusion of the three airlines (Skywest Airlines, Tiger Airways and Rex, which are out of Qantas and Virigin tussles) to get a bigger picture of who among the two actually did tell the truth.

The two airlines simply used different methods in order to get a favorable result by spinning the statistics. To get atop the ranking, Virgin Australia didn't measure itself against individual airlines. Rather, it measured itself against the Qantas-branded and Qantas group of airlines. On the other hand, Qantas excluded its subsidiaries to get the its own favorable stats.

On-time arrivals matter more than departures

It was found out that the stats used by both competing airlines were for on-time departures. But there is one thing to ponder if you are a traveler - Which is more important to you - the on-time arrival or on-time departure? Many sectors agree on the former.

Not getting on your plane as scheduled may be a pretty annoying experience. But it is far more inconvenient if your plane arrives in your destination several minutes late into your scheduled business meeting. It is suffice to say that getting on time to your point of destination is far more relevant than leaving the airport late.

Cancellations should count

One funny thing about the statistics is that it excluded canceled flights made by the airlines. That may sound odd but it's true. Some sectors believe that canceled flights cause far more anxiety than delayed flights. However, airlines don't often include canceled flights against itself, for obvious reasons, of course.

Then there's another thing that muddied the ratings game. Both Qantas and Virgin Australia cited figures based on the entire financial year of 2011 and 2012. It has been suggested that they would use the most immediate period, say last three or six months.

The numbers that matter

To get a better picture, the most recent (June 2012) on-time arrivals stats are taken into account, instead of the entire financial year of 2011-2012. Scheduled flights of individual airlines are used in order to get our own stats more realistic and understandable to the public. This way, canceled flights are considered, as they should have been.

If you want to do a little bit of fun doing your own mathematics, try to use the data made by BITRE. You will find accurate on-time percentage of the airline's on-time arrival by dividing the scheduled departures by the on-time arrivals it made for the period. To find the group's overall stats, find the sum of the scheduled departures of the individual carriers that belong to the group and divide it by the sum of their respective on-time arrivals.

So which is really the most on-time airline?

Based on our own findings, the accolade should go to Virgin Australia as the airline with the most on-time arrivals in the country. During that period, Virgin Australia was able to beat Qantas by a hair having a difference of 1.6 percent between them. Virgin had 83.1% compared to Qantas' 82.7%.

That being said, it is clear to us that QantasLink doesn't have that honor for on-time airline, having a record of a dismal 65.1% over the period. And there's more why QantasLink shows such a miserable rating - 3.7% of its flights were canceled as against 0.5 to 1.1% for other airlines.

Furthermore, Qantas still lags behind if you group its regional and subsidiary airlines together as a whole against the Virgin group. To illustrate, the average for the Virgin group is 82.8% whereas the Qantas group is a far distant 74.9%.

On-time trends: January-June 2012

We were able to map out the whole 6 months of this year starting in January up to June using the same formula that we used for our one-month analysis. And we found out a more startling trend than the dismal showing of Qantas group during the one-month period - the group actually has been going on a downward trend in terms of its on-time flights performance since March.