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It works for predicting winners in political elections and in sports, so why not for on-time flights?
That’s the idea behind the new "fastest flights interactive" from noted statistician Nate Silver and the crack team of number-crunchers at his ESPN-based website, FiveThirtyEight.
By analyzing delay data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) for flights flown by major airlines within the U.S. -- more than 6 million in 2014 -- Silver says the new tool “can tell you which airlines perform the best on which routes and which airports you should avoid if you can.”
The tool could be a big time saver for travelers who find themselves cooling their heels on airplanes and in airports.
Silver notes that in 2014 the 6 million domestic flights the U.S. government tracked required an extra 80 million minutes to reach their destinations. And, at an average of 80 passengers per flight, he figures that works out to an extra 12,000 years spent in transit.
FiveThirtyEight’s rankings take into account a variety of factors beyond what Silver calls the “fuzzy” categories the government asks airlines to use to report delays. It evaluates not only average flight time, but “target time,” “typical time” and “time added.” How much airlines pad their schedules is taken into consideration as well.
You can find a more in-depth explanation of the terms and methodology FiveThirtyEight is using here and run familiar routes and planned flights through the tool here, but several aviation and travel analysts we spoke with think the interactive is too one-dimensional to be of much use to frequent travelers.
“The reality is delay averages are just that – averages,” said Frank Catalano, a columnist at GeekWire. “They don't take into account amateur vs. non-vacation travel season, routinely awful weather seasons and just bad airline management,” he said.
Nor does the new tool take into account a wide range of factors travelers care about and are part of search parameters offered elsewhere by online travel agencies and metasearch engines.
“Figuring out whether, on the balance of all its flights, Airline A is five or ten minutes faster from JFK to LAX than Airline B, doesn’t seem useful for the average passenger who is interested in price and schedule, nor for the frequent flyer who is interested in points and upgrades,” said aviation journalist John Walton.
Other online services offer features that can fill in some of FiveThirtyEight's perceived gaps.
Routehappy, for example, assigns a score and a “Happiness Factor” to flights based on aircraft type, seat location, in-flight amenities such as the availability of Wi-Fi and in-seat power and trip duration. Hipmunk lets shoppers rank flight options by price and flight duration, but also by “agony” – a measurement Hipmunk describes a combination of price, number of stops and duration.
And the FiveThirtyEight site will continue to update. It plans to refresh the data used for the interactive on a monthly basis, but Silver notes that “we’ve found airline performance to be fairly consistent from year to year and month to month.”
“I would use the FiveThirtyEight flight interactive as a backup, or neutral source of verification,” said GeekWire’s Catalano.
“In other words, if I was flying an airline I don't usually fly, or flying into an airport I rarely visit, and am otherwise getting conflicting advice, it could be a good additional reality check -- even for the pathologically frequent flier.”