The Fastest Airline in the Country

03/19/2015 03:01 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2015


What's an electoral wizard like Nate Silver -- the analyst/journalist at the helm of data-driven news site FiveThirtyEight -- to do during the relative quiet of an election off-season? Solve one of the most vexing of travel problems, that's what.

Silver has just unveiled a new Fastest Flights interactive tool promising to show you which domestic airline will get you to your destination on time. Just type in your airport pairs and the site returns a scorecard telling you what the typical flight time is for that route--and how close each airline comes to hitting that mark. If you're flying from Newark to Chicago O'Hare, for example, the tool will tell you to expect just over three hours of flight time, and that American is likely to get you in a full 41 minutes later than United.

The site also provides an interactive overview of which domestic airports are the most congested--and which airlines are the country's fastest. According to FiveThirtyEight's calculations, Virgin America is the best, shaving an average of seven minutes off of typical flight times. US Airways and Alaska are tied for second (taking six minutes off), with Delta taking third place (minus four minutes). Bringing up the rear? United, which tacks on an extra six minutes, on average, to each flight.

Other sites have stepped into this space in the past, drawing from the on-time arrival records that airlines of a certain size are required to report to the Department of Transportation. (T+L has even dipped in its toes.) But what makes Silver's project more interesting--and relevant--are all the subtle, yet important factors he takes into account.

In fact, he goes into great detail explaining this on his site, but in essence, FivethirtyEight's tool accounts for how much airlines pad their flight schedules, adding extra minutes to the "scheduled time" to ensure the appearance of efficient operations. Instead of allowing airlines choose their own measuring stick to determine the performance of their flights, FiveThirtyEight came up with a single one ("typical flight time") against which to judge all carriers that fly a given route.

The other great innovation: factoring in statistics from regional carriers that fly short-hop routes on behalf of larger domestic airlines. Often, it's these smaller airlines--Envoy Air (i.e. American Eagle), ExpressJet, and SkyWest--that experience the most consistent and excessively late flight delays. But since they report their statics to the DOT separately, their poor performances don't impact the official on-time records of their larger partner carriers. FiveThirtyEight doesn't let the legacy carriers get away with this anymore.

What this all means for travelers: we finally have a comprehensive and accurate portrait of carrier performance in the United States. Fastest Flights is a serious game changer. It empowers travelers to make well-informed decisions about which airlines to fly. And by not allowing airlines to hide behind fuzzy statistics, it challenges them to do better. 

--By Amy Farley