Delta Air Lines in 2017 became the first US operator to win the global mainline airline category for on-time performance (OTP), based on data from FlightGlobal incorporating FlightStats.

The Atlanta-based carrier achieved an 85.9 on-time percentage and during a nine-day period in November including the US Thanksgiving holiday, the data shows that the airline cancelled only one of 23,485 flights.

Here FlightGlobal talks to Delta Air Lines' chief operating officer Gil West about the carrier's operational performance and the challenges it faced during 2017.

With Delta winning the on-time crown for both the Global Mainline Airline and North American Mainline and Network categories for 2017, can you outline the operational efficiencies that drives Delta’s OTP?

Our operational success in 2017 is a direct result of the dedication and expertise of the 80,000 Delta employees worldwide. At Delta, continuous improvement and an endless drive to enhance our operation for the benefit of our customers is in our DNA. Delta people never stop looking for opportunities to improve how we operate while leveraging investments in technology, infrastructure and processes to fuel our continued success.

2017 saw Delta overcome some critical issues such as severe weather impact and power outage, can you talk to how the company managed to mitigate the impact as much as possible?

While our operations were challenged this year by record hurricanes, winter storms and a power outage at our Atlanta hub, among others, Delta employees still outperformed the competition and achieved some impressive performance stats – even surpassing many of our 2016 record breaking metrics. With the support of our talented people and several process improvements, Delta accomplished another record year, in spite of those challenges.

The key to that success is our intense focus on continuous innovation coupled with a passion to provide a new standard of reliability for our customers. Following each operational impact, teams from across the enterprise look for ways to enhance processes and develop strategies to ensure weather disruptions don’t have an outsized impact on our system and our customers.

It also means being smart with how we manage our operation, setting Delta up for success by positioning aircraft and employees in the right place at the right time to recover the operation safely and expeditiously as well as communicating with our customers to give them the tools and information to adjust their travel plans as necessary, when disruptions occur.

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Gil West, chief operating officer at Delta, collects the on-time performance award at the Delta Leadership Conference in Atlanta

How does Delta measure on-time performance from a business perspective? What does it drive to the airline’s bottom line?

Based on customer feedback and surveys, the most significant driver of a positive net promoter score is an on-time arrival. Combined with the exceptional customer service provided by our dedicated employees, more than 180 million customers fly Delta each year and they continue to return to Delta, in part, because of our strong on-time reliability and completion factor performance.

Additionally, an on-time and reliably strong airline with limited delays and cancellations is a more cost efficient airline.

How does Delta make sense of the data generation from flights and aircraft to improve on-time departures and arrivals?

Delta is a very data-centric airline. We collect and measure data from every flight to evaluate trends and see where we have opportunities to improve. It’s that intense focus on the data that drives our culture of innovation and is how we deliver an award-winning product to our customers around the world. Our people, along with their dedication to the Delta brand, never miss an opportunity to make the Delta experience even better for our customers.

Additionally, we leverage the technical data streaming from our aircraft to implement “predictive maintenance” and proactively repair aircraft before they ever break in the first place.

As on-time performance is important to the airline’s reputation, how does Delta create a culture of delivering on-time performance?

Our people are committed to customer service—it’s something they’re passionate about. At the heart of that service culture is a company-wide focus to preserving Delta’s position as an industry leader in operational performance and delivering to our customers an exceptional on-time airline across our 330 worldwide destinations. It’s our employee-driven culture that sets Delta apart and we attribute our operational success to their commitment to meeting and exceeding our goals.

What challenges does Delta face integrating new aircraft into its fleet with regard to flight delays, and how are these addressed?

Delta has demonstrated that we lead the industry in reliability with some of the oldest equipment types in service. New aircraft drive an incremental reliability improvement to our baseline performance. Our TechOps and FlightOps teams plan and prepare for new fleet introductions years in advance in order to ensure the highest standards of operational performance.

Can you tell me about Delta’s position on predictive data and analysis and big data capabilities as way to inform operations?

Delta’s TechOps maintenance division continues to leverage predictive data to drive our maintenance decisions to prevent delays and cancellations as a result of a maintenance issue. In 2017, Delta prevented more than 1,000 delays or cancels as a direct result of the airline’s predictive maintenance program.

We’ve taken that same strategy with our broader operation, using big data and predictive analytics to inform the future state of the airline and make customer-focused decisions accordingly, especially when severe weather events or other irregular operations occur.

FlightGlobal's FlightStats ratings are determined from the tracking of approximately 99,000 flights per day, operated and serviced by thousands of airlines and airports. In 2017, a total of over 36 million flights were processed. Winners are based on the analysis of flight status and arrival data curated from over 600 global sources.

The on-time metric is determined by flights arriving at its gate within 14 minutes of the scheduled arrival time (in the industry, known as A14).

Full details of the 2017 winners can be found here.

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