U.S. airlines improve on-time performances in 2008

With their capacity heavily cut, the U.S. airlines' on-time performance improved in 2008 compared to the previous year, according to a federal report released Monday.

More than two-thirds — 76% — of the flights operated by the nation's 19 largest airlines arrived on time last year, an improvement over 2007's 73.4%, says the U.S. Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics. A flight is considered on time if it arrives within 15 minutes of schedule. Only those airlines whose domestic scheduled flight passenger revenue is at least 1% of the market are required to report their performance data.

Coping with the start of the winter season and facing heavy holiday traffic, the carriers' on-time performance in December — 65.3% — deteriorated from November, when 83.3% of arrivals landed on time. In December 2007, 64.3% of flights arrived on time.

About 45% of delays were caused by weather, the report says.

Sluggish demand and rising fuel prices have forced domestic airlines to eliminate non-profitable routes last year, particularly in the second half. And flying fewer seats and flights, the U.S. airlines had a decidedly easier time pushing planes out of the gates promptly.

"2007 was the worst year we've had in a long time," says Dean Headley, a marketing professor at Wichita State University and co-author of annual The Airline Quality Rating. "Finally, airlines began to realize capacity and demand needed to match better. In 2007, they were working with the idea of 'let's just get some flights out there.' They were losing their rear."

Other performance indicators monitored by the Department of Transportation also improved last year. In December, the carriers canceled 3.3% of their scheduled domestic flights, down from 3.5% in December 2007 but higher than the 0.8% rate in November 2008.

Regional airlines typically perform the worst in the category, and December was no exception. American Eagle, Comair and Pinnacle respectively had the highest percentage of flights canceled in December.

In 2008, the U.S. carriers posted a mishandled baggage rate of 5.26 reports per 1,000 passengers, an improvement over 2007's rate of 7.05. In December, the carriers reported 6.96 reports, better than December 2007's 9.05 but higher than November 2008's 3.75.

The U.S. airlines also bumped fewer passengers in 2008 — 1.1 per 10,000 passengers. That's down from the 1.12 rate for 2007. For the fourth quarter of 2008, the carriers reported a bumping rate of 1.1 per 10,000 passengers, up from the 0.83 rate in the fourth quarter of 2007.

The Department of Transportation also recently began requiring airlines to report lengthy tarmac delays. Of about 545,000 departures in December, 186 sat on the tarmac three hours or longer. It was slightly higher than November.

Meanwhile, the number of customer complaints the department received in 2008 fell 19% to 10,643. In December, 700 complaints about airline service were filed by consumers, down 18% from December 2007 but 32% more than 532 received in November 2008.

Other findings:

•Best and worst airlines:Among large network airlines, Southwest had the highest on-time rate in 2008, with 80.5%. American Airlines, at 69.8%, had the lowest.

•Best and worst airports:In 2008, Salt Lake City International had the highest on-time arrival rate among the 32 busiest airports in the USA. Charlotte had the best on-time arrival performance for December. Newark Liberty was the worst for December and for all of 2008.

•Worst flight:SkyWest Airlines flight 4669 from Atlanta to San Antonio was the most consistently late flight in the USA in December. It was late more than 94% of the time.

•Long tarmac delays:The flights with the longest tarmac delays during December occurred on the same day — Dec. 10, 2008. ExpressJet Airlines flight 2418 from Houston to Monroe, La. sat on the tarmac for 7 hours and 9 minutes before departing. Continental Airlines flight 1010 from Houston to Newark was next, with 6 hours and 49 minutes of delay.