The Unfriendly Skies: America's Worst Airlines

Comair, meanwhile, pointed to a 40% spike in demand in the Northeast this past year, where weather was also tough during the winter of 2006 to 2007. While blaming weather can be an easy copout, it's certainly a factor. It's probably no coincidence that Hawaiian Airlines and Aloha Airlines rate as two of the best carriers in the country in on-time performance and efficient baggage handling, while incurring few cancellations.

"We continue to fight a losing battle against weather and congestion in that part of the country," says Comair spokeswoman Kate Marx. "We are doing everything we can to assist customers during delays and cancellations, but we anticipate the issues to continue until an overarching solution is implemented," she says, asserting that general air traffic control problems are at least partly to blame.

Certainly when it comes to flight delays, problems unique to specific airlines like plane readiness and crew availability are compounded by factors beyond their control, such as airport mismanagement, air traffic congestion, bad weather and, these days, longer security lines. There's no shortage of ideas on how to deal with some of these problems, though the most radical one comes from Robert Poole, director of transportation studies for the Reason Foundation.

His solution? Turn over the air traffic infrastructure to the private sector. His Air Traffic Control report cites a Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation study, which asserted that privatization would transfer and spread risk, while introducing more efficiencies into the system.

Not everyone sees the private sector as the answer, though Poole is certainly not alone in criticizing a traffic control system increasingly seen as obsolete. From a taxpayers' perspective, it wouldn't require a huge investment to bring the air traffic control system into the 21st century. The FAA conservatively estimates that upgrading the entire U.S. air traffic operation to a satellite based-system would cost $1 billion per year for the next 20 years, a rounding error in the national budget.

Mary E. Peters, U.S. secretary of transportation, has cautioned that time is growing short.

"Aviation delays will grow without significant reforms as forecasters predict that air traffic will increase by the equivalent of two major hubs a year," she said in a recent statement.

Meanwhile the number of mishandled bags--those lost, damaged, delayed or pilfered has nearly doubled over the past three years to more than 4 million incidents. Industry laggard Atlantic Southeast mishandled 17 bags for every 1,000 passengers it carried last year, according to the DOT report.

It's enough to get airlines to spend on upgrading those services that matter most to customers, now that traffic is up and balance sheets are improving.

As American Eagle's Huguely puts it: "We don't like being at the bottom."

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