From the WSJ:
SOMEWHERE OVER OHIO—Some airline flights are just losers—day after day, they just can’t get to their destination on time. And the worst flight of all?
That would be United Express Flight 4352, what’s meant to be a 97-minute jump from Cincinnati to Newark, N.J. The 6 p.m. flight has run chronically late more often than any other U.S. airline flight over the past two years, according to Department of Transportation data.
Newark is the most-delayed airport in the country, prone to hourlong waits for even the most routine weather. And delays can pile up for smaller regional-jet flights that make trips into and out of Newark all day long with passengers for United’s hub operation. By evening, delays often balloon into missed connections, overnight stays at airports and angry fliers.
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Yet Flight 4352 and other loser flights highlight a particularly harsh reality for passengers: Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration often get to pick and choose which customers to delay.
When flights back up, the FAA sometimes thins out the flow of planes by keeping those making short trips on the ground. That can hit smaller regional jets harder than larger planes making cross-country trips. Other times the FAA lets airlines prioritize flights. Some flights get pushed through without delay while others pay the penalty of longer waits.
United said it tries not to target certain flights for delay. “Although delays in New York are unfortunately common, we definitely pay close attention to these flights and make every attempt not to delay the same flights repeatedly,” United spokeswoman Mary Clark said. She added that like most airlines, United gives priority to bigger planes and hits regional-jet flights with longer delays. “United tries to satisfy the greatest number of customers,” she said.
Flight 4352 carries a typically eclectic load of passengers. It’s United’s last flight of the day to Newark from Cincinnati, and so it carries business passengers as well as vacationers headed to the Big Apple and beyond. Some have booked connecting flights for cities as close as Providence, R.I., while others are headed as far as Tel Aviv. Regulars say some days it’s packed. Other days the 50-seat jet is half-full. One saving grace for long-delayed passengers: A local ice cream company, Graeter’s, has a cart strategically stationed right at Gate 12, where Newark flights depart from the roomy terminal in Cincinnati.
In 12 of the past 24 months ending in March, Flight 4352, which has changed flight numbers five times over the past two years to purge its bad history from airline reservation systems, was over 30 minutes late on at least half of its scheduled days, which is the DOT definition of “chronically late.”
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Flight 4352 has been on time only 19% of the time, according to United’s website, and has been canceled 7% of the time—far greater than the airline average of about 2% of flights canceled.
Last Friday, it was three hours late when spring rain showers slowed up Newark. The aircraft that would fly Flight 4352 went from Newark to Toronto earlier in the day and ran late. The trip back to Newark ran into more delay imposed by air-traffic controllers and landed back in Newark three hours overdue, with no way to catch up. ExpressJet Airlines, the regional carrier that operates Flight 4352 for United on a contract basis, says that’s been the typical pattern.
That’s no news to regular customers like Dan Sheehan, who uses Flight 4352 to commute home to New Jersey from his financial services job in Cincinnati.
“It’s horrible. I’ve flown it every Friday for the last three months and it’s late 90% of the time,” said Mr. Sheehan, who started his painful commute in February. United, he said, keeps sending him a survey after most flights. “They always ask for my feedback and I can’t keep coming up with worse words.”
Fares on the Newark-Cincinnati route can be high, with no low-fare carrier competition. United, with a hub in Newark, and Delta, with a hub in Cincinnati, have a duopoly on the route and usually charge about the same price. Mr. Sheehan typically pays $800 to $1,100 round-trip for his Monday flight out and Friday flight home.
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“It’s so frustrating,” he said. “I can’t tell a difference in good weather and bad. It’s just always late. If the weather is perfect here and perfect there, there are only so many flights. How can you have everything jammed up? It’s amazing. I don’t know how to tolerate it anymore.”
Of the 10 most chronically delayed flights in the U.S. over the past two years, all are ExpressJet Airlines flights for United that either take off from or land in Newark. Most are late afternoon or evening trips. ExpressJet, a unit of SkyWest Airlines, said it has so many flights on the chronically delayed list simply because it is flying in and out of Newark so much in the most congested airspace in the country. “We work daily to improve operational reliability by focusing on the areas we control, and working with all our partners,” spokeswoman Kate Modolo said.
The DOT tried to crack down on chronically delayed flights in 2010, threatening to fine airlines for any flight that has been chronically late for four months in a row. No flight has been that dismal since the rule was put in place, the DOT said. Flight 4352 has had multiple bouts of two consecutive months, but never three in a row. It was on the chronically delayed flight list seven out of 12 months in 2012, and two out of first three months of 2013—all that DOT has counted so far.
Geography is another strike against Flight 4352. Much of the traffic flow into New York from the west passes over Cleveland, and sometimes planes in Ohio and other nearby spots have a hard time getting an opening in the conga line of jets overhead.
The FAA says even though it limits the number of takeoff and landing slots at Newark, the airport is still scheduled at peak traffic most hours, so if a backlog develops, there’s no lull in which to catch up. Making matters worse, the weather in Newark has been poorer this year than last year, an FAA official said.
Passengers interested in avoiding cursed flights should check the on-time performance for flights on airline websites and by independent services like FlightStats.com. The list of chronically delayed flights can be found on the Bureau of Transportation Statistics website.
Glen Edwards didn’t need to check—word has gotten around his office. Mr. Edwards, who works for a fragrance company with offices in northern New Jersey and in Cincinnati, said colleagues warned him about Flight 4352, especially after United canceled the flight two days earlier, leaving one of Mr. Edwards’s colleagues stranded. (Flight 4352 was actually canceled both Wednesday and Thursday last week before Friday’s three-hour delay.)
“It’s well-known at my company that it’s always late,” Mr. Edwards said. “What are you going to do? We’re not going to move a company because of a flight.” Still, he and his colleagues are frustrated. “It’s time away from family and time that’s costing the company money, too,” he said.
Bree Derrick missed her connection in Newark to Providence, R.I., Friday night because of Flight 4352’s long delay. United told passengers it wouldn’t pay for hotel rooms because the delay was caused by bad weather.
Looking over a grungy Terminal A gate area strewed with displaced passengers, she sighed and decided to rent a car and drive 3½ hours home. “It’s frustrating,” she said. “But who wants to sleep here?”