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Air Canada AC-T notched the worst on-time performance among large airlines in North America in 2023, according to a new report, even as the carrier surged back to profitability.

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. That means roughly 140,000 planes rolled up to the gate late – 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, respectively.

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

“When I joined the industry, good OTP was 75 per cent-plus,” said Willy Boulter, a Cirium advisory board member and 35-year aviation veteran.

Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines came first with an on-time performance (OTP) of 85 per cent, followed by Alaska Airlines at 82 per cent.

Better technology in areas ranging from jet engines to air traffic control have made on-time targets more achievable than ever, said Boulter.

Other, smaller airlines in Canada and the U.S. may have had worse on-time records than Air Canada’s, but weren’t included in the report due to their size.

“The results reflect the challenges through the year that affected carriers in Canada. 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,” said Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick in an e-mail.

Forty-nine per cent of Air Canada flights in July arrived late, according to Cirium.

Air Canada ranks last of major North American airlines for flight arrival times

The airline’s focus remains on reducing the number of delays and cancellations in 2024, Fitzpatrick said.

In the past, the Montreal-based company 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” – thunderstorms, in particular – and global supply chain issues as among the culprits.

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

John Gradek, who teaches aviation management at McGill University, noted that those challenges were not unique to Air Canada, despite its tardier track record. Air Alaska also deals with inclement weather, for example.

Air Canada is counting on Canadians to prioritize availability over punctuality, Gradek argued.

“It’s more important for us to be able to get a seat to Jamaica or to Dubai or to Bangkok, and the heck with the on-time,” he said. “And that’s a shame.”

The summer travel peak poses a slew of obstacles, as airlines look to maximize their fleets to fly as many customers as possible.

“The harder I work the airplane, the higher the risk that that airplane will have a mechanical issue ... and that these airplanes will not operate on time,” said Gradek, who worked at Air Canada for 18 years.

“Delta does value on time performance quite highly. Air Canada does not,” he claimed, stating that its last-place results partly reflect business decisions around scheduling and route choices.

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 can be more spread out.

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

Over the holidays, however, the fairly mild temperatures across the country 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.

In peak travel season, some fleets are often stretched too thin to find a backup plane right away, Gradek pointed out.

Strained capacity in the sector extends to labour as well, from pilots to baggage handlers. In July, the International Air Transport Association called out air traffic control organizations in North America, which include Nav Canada, for staffing shortages that “continue to produce unacceptable delays and disruptions.”

Nav Canada has acknowledged that occasional delays at the country’s biggest airports are related in part to a lack of air traffic controllers. More than 400 new recruits are now in training, with 600 more slated to be hired in the next two years, the organization said.

As planes wait to land, time spent circling the runway can tack on hours to flight crews’ shifts each week, pushing them closer to their 28-day cap and leaving less leeway for them to fill schedule holes by month’s end.

Meanwhile, late arrivals mean a smaller window to carry out preventive maintenance between flights overnight, which can result in mechanical issues and more delays down the line.

The disruption can take a toll.

On average, every minute of delay for one airplane costs the carrier about US$100 on average, according to aviation analyst Tony Brooks, drawing on 2022 data from the U.S. Department of Transport.

“It is estimated delays cost over US$1 billion each year to the industry, a vast sum which could be put to better use towards investment in airline and airport infrastructure,” he said in the Cirium report.

Air Canada earned $2.08 billion in profit in the first three quarters of 2023. The resurgence followed 11 straight quarters of losses totalling $10.01 billion between 2020 and 2022, when demand for travel dried up due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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