Australia's least-reliable airline

Tigerair: prepare for not taking off.
Tigerair: prepare for not taking off. Photo: James Morgan

While the Australian domestic airlines have spent the past two years waging a market share war, another battle going on in the background has plenty to say about the experience you encounter next time you decide to fly.

Whether they are offering the cheapest fare or touting the best in-flight service, all airlines are super-sensitive about their on-time performance.

Generally speaking, the cheaper your fare, the more likely it is that your plane is going to be late.

And the landscape has changed beyond recognition in the past three years.

After its grounding in 2011 for safety violations, a chastened Tigerair emerged from the sin bin vowing to overhaul every part of its operations.

And, for the next year, operating under severe regulatory restrictions about the number of flights it was able to operate, Tiger was able to boast that it was by far Australia's most punctual airline.

But, when all restrictions were lifted and the airline was free to start ramping up its schedule to a full daily utilisation of its A320 jets, its on-time performance began to falter.

In the past year, to use the vernacular, Tiger's reliability has gone to hell in a hand basket.

The latest month's snapshot for June, which enables us to look back at the past financial year, shows that, when it comes to punctuality, Tigerair has indeed become the black sheep in more ways than one.

In June, Tiger achieved an on-time arrival rate of just 68.4 per cent of its flights while its direct low-cost competitor Jetstar hit a comparatively stellar 81.1 per cent (remembering that the official definition of on-time is now 15 minutes late or less).

In fact, Jetstar had almost pegged Virgin Australia (82.4 per cent), which is focused in turn on catching up to the airline market punctuality leader, Qantas (85.4 per cent).

Tigerair is also the worst airline for flight cancellations, with 3.2 per cent of its schedule – twice the industry average – not leaving the runway in June.

That meant 63 of its June departures were cancelled – an average of two flights per day. Over the month, the travel plans of around 10,000 people were disrupted as a result.

At the top of the market, Qantas regards it as imperative that it remains the market leader for punctuality, since arriving on time is crucial for the 75 per cent or so of Australian business travellers who remain with the national carrier.

But Jetstar also now regards punctuality as crucial in the low-fares market.

"We've worked hard to improve our customer proposition and a key part of our strategy has been a concerted push to improve our punctuality," a Jetstar spokesperson says.

"Pleasingly this is beginning to bear fruit and we've seen our on-time performance improve over the last financial year. We're once again the most punctual low fares carrier in Australia (+3.7 per cent for departures/ + 8.3 per cent for arrivals relative to Tigerair)."

According to the spokesperson, the airline hit a number of internal targets in the year to the end of June.

"In FY14, we dispatched more than 78.5 per cent of our flights as scheduled – a three percentage point improvement on the previous FY," the spokesperson says. "We've improved our year on year punctuality performance in every month of this year.

"For the six months ended 30 June 2014, we saw 83 per cent of flights depart on time – our best first half result in four years.

"The six month result also represents a better than seven percentage point improvement on the corresponding period in 2013."

Don't be left in any doubt about how important this stuff is to the airlines. And Tigerair, which averaged just 72 per cent of flights landing on time in the past financial year compared with Jetstar's 79.5 per cent, is feeling the pinch.

"Delivering enhanced on time performance is a constant focus at Tigerair Australia," a spokesperson says.

"In June, our on time performance was adversely affected by a number of extraneous factors including weather (severe winds in Melbourne, fog in Perth and the Indonesian volcanic ash cloud), METRON (air traffic control) programmed delays, infrastructure limitations at key ports and the Sydney Airport Terminal 2 power outage.

"Construction of the new terminal four domestic terminal at Melbourne Airport continues to constrain our Melbourne operation impacting our check-in and boarding process and we continue to work closely with Melbourne Airport to minimise impacts.

"Tigerair continues to invest in its operation to drive process improvement and the recent transition of maintenance to BAE Systems is delivering efficiencies.

"Tigerair has also recently introduced new self-serve check-in kiosks in Brisbane and Melbourne and web check-in is now available at all ports to assist with more efficient check-in and boarding procedures.

"The whole team at Tigerair remains committed to delivering the best in terms of safe, affordable and reliable air travel and the airline remains focused on continual improvement in every aspect of the operation."

The fact that the federal government decided about a decade ago to begin catching up with America and publishing on-time performance data is finally having the desired effect, opening up a new front in the competition battle.

While price ultimately decides whether you'll travel or not if you're paying for your own ticket, cheap tickets may be a false economy if there are ramifications like missed connections or unplanned accommodation if a flight is late or doesn't leave at all.

Does punctuality play a role in your choice of airline? Is it a turnoff that Tigerair lacks punctuality or cancels so many flights? Or is price king?

FOOTNOTE: The 2013-14 financial year report on airline punctuality was released on Monday, August 18, 2014. http//www.bitre.gov.au/statistics/otp_annual.aspx

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