United Airlines just had its first day without a cancelation since April 2013

United is making on-time performance a priority. But will it catch Delta? Probably not. Photo: United Airlines. 

United is making on-time performance a priority. But will it catch Delta? Probably not. Photo: United Airlines. 

Last week, United Airlines completed an entire day without canceling a flight for any reason - weather or maintenance. This does not include United Express flights.

United was pleased with its big day, sharing a message with all employees congratulating everyone for a job well done. 

"We made good on our commitment to get our customers from Point A to Point B with our performance on Wednesday, completing all 1,751 mainline flights and posting a top-tier 80.8 percent on-time arrival rate," United said in the message. "This was our sixth no-cancellation day since 2010 and the first since April 2013."

That sounds impressive, right? But let's compare United's record to Delta. United went nearly two and a half years between no-cancellation days. What about Delta?

Last week, Delta told employees it had just completed 100 days this year without a cancelation. "In the industry, it's known as 'completion factor' - the percentage of scheduled flights completed in a day," Delta said in a blog post. "Sounds simple, but anything from weather to unexpected maintenance problems can cancel flights anywhere in the world."

Delta created this infographic to celebrate the achievement. 

Why does Delta cancel so many fewer flights? More than anything, Delta works hard at it, making reliability a focus. It spends a lot of time and money working toward its goals.

United employees sometimes argue Delta has an advantage since, with the exception of New York, Delta's major hubs are in less congested airports than United's hubs. This is true. If you want to run an on-time airline, you're probably better off with hubs in Atlanta, Minneapolis and Detroit than Chicago, Newark and San Francisco. But there's certainly more to Delta's magic than well-situated hubs.

United people often suggest they'll never match Delta's completion rate, but they have signaled they want to improve. In the note to employees, network operations Vice President Tracy Lee said the operation should get better. 

"We should take advantage of good fall weather and keep this up," Lee said. "Completion rate is the most fundamental operating metric; it shows that we take seriously the commitment we make to our customers every time we sell a ticket."

Earlier this month, Lee told Reuters that United would be making reliability a priority. "Delta is running a very good airline, and I want to equal that," Lee told the news service. 

In another recent story, Bloomberg detailed some of the changes United has been making with aircraft scheduling. Here's how Bloomberg described the new approach:

"The approach emphasizes “out-and-back” flying, with jets starting at a hub and going to just one city before returning. United will double the number of routes using that system and cut roundabout trips that begin in one base -- say, Denver -- and make multiple stops before ending up in another.

What do you think? Will United improve later in 2015?

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