Most of us have experienced some type of problem when flying such as flight delays, lost luggage, and rude airline personnel, which are some of the more common challenges that we encounter. Keeping track of data on these issues as well as the other issues within the airline industry is an important function of the United States Department of Transportation (DOT). The DOT collects data from airlines and passengers and compiles them into a monthly Air Travel Consumer Report. (The report issued in March 2016 is a sample.)
What Do They Include?
Each month, the DOT collects data on a number of issues including on-time flight rates, canceled flights, flights delayed on the tarmac and chronically-delayed flights. Data is also compiled on lost and mishandled baggage, problems with reservations and ticketing, oversales and bumped passengers, complaints based on disability and discrimination concerns and issues involving animals being transported by air.
How Do They Collect the Data?
Data is collected in a variety of ways by several different organizations, depending on the data type, including the airlines and by way of consumer complaints filed with DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and the airlines directly. All of the data is compiled and analyzed by the DOT for its report.
The statistical category of on-time performance is defined as departing from or arriving at the gate within 15 minutes of the scheduled time. The DOT requires 12 airlines to report on-time data for 29 specified airports. The airlines do this through automatic reporting systems, and they often go beyond the requirement by reporting on-time data for all the airports they use. The additional data provides more precise measurements of on-time performance than if only data for the 29 airports were reported.
Other information, such as mishandled baggage, is reported by airlines to the DOT. Complaints from passengers about such things as lost and damaged baggage, airline customer service and disability concerns are collected by the DOT in writing, by phone, by email and in person. Complaints about safety are collected by the FAA, and complaints about security are handled by the TSA. These agencies share the data with the DOT so that it can be included in the monthly report.
How Do They Report the Data?
To be useful to consumers, the DOT report has to present the thousands of data points clearly. They do this through very well organized tables. On-time data are presented in several ways: by airlines, by airport and by time. On-time data for the current year are compared with data from the previous year on a month-to-month comparison, making it easier to see differences in performance. Complaints and their occurrences are shown by type of complaint and by airline, both domestic and foreign.
More importantly, the Air Travel Consumer Report includes definitions and descriptions of the various categories of data and variables as well as notes about the data. These are important because the intended audience is the consumer, and the average consumer may not be familiar with the all of the areas covered in the report. Knowing your audience and writing for that audience, rather than yourself, is vital in writing data reports. Here is an example of the tables used in the DOT report. It is easy to read and displays useful data. Notes below the table give further details.
What About Prices?
The DOT also collects data on fares for flights, though this information is not part of the Air Travel Consumer Report. Rather, this information is contained in a quarterly Air Fare Data report. The report includes price comparisons, including quarter-to-quarter and year-to-year comparisons and 20-year historical comparisons and percentage changes in average air fares. Data using both adjusted-for-inflation figures and unadjusted figures are given.
As just these two reports show, data science in the airline industry is important. It is important to the government, the members of the industry and consumers that these data be properly collected, analyzed and reported because the airline industry incorporates and affects so much of our country’s economy. (Note that these reports concentrate only on the passenger airline industry. Other parts of the aviation industry – such as private planes and cargo delivery – have their own huge amounts of data to collect and analyze.) If you are interested in gaining a deeper understanding in this area, you may want to consider pursuing an online degree in data science.