Airlines' on-time arrival rate improves in January

The nation's largest airlines improved its on-time performance in January as they handled lighter traffic amid the economic downturn, according to a monthly federal air traffic report released Wednesday.

The 19 largest airlines recorded an overall on-time arrival rate of 77% in January, an improvement over both January 2008's 72.4% and December 2008's 65.3%, according to the Air Travel Consumer Report released by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

The month-over-month improvement in January isn't unusual since December is one of the busiest months of the year and air traffic eases considerably after the Christmas holidays. The industry is also dealing with lighter passenger traffic in the new year compared to a year ago, as carriers cut back their capacity dramatically in the second half of 2008.

Similar improvements were recorded in other performance categories. In January, the carriers canceled 2.3% of their scheduled domestic flights, lower than 2.9% in January 2008 and 3.3% posted in December 2008.

The airlines attributed 43.6% of its delays in January to bad weather.

Other findings:

•The carriers posted a mishandled baggage rate of 5.2 reports per 1,000 passengers in January, an improvement over both January 2008's rate of 7.39 and December 2008's 6.96 rate.

•In January, the Transportation Department received 884 complaints about airline service from consumers, down from 1,174 complaints in January 2008 but 26.3% more than the total of 700 received in December 2008.

•Less than 60% of flights operated by Comair, a regional airline for Delta, arrived on time. Its on-time rate of 56.8% was the lowest among all 19 airlines. Comair also operated all five of the most consistently delayed flights in January.

•Among major carriers, Alaska Airlines had the lowest on-time rate with 71.5%. Southwest, with 83.3%, fared the best.

•A US Airways flight on Jan. 28 from Columbus, Ohio to Phoenix sat on the tarmac for more than six hours, the longest such delay in January among the flights operated by major airlines. Other lengthy tarmac delays that exceeded 4 hours were also reported by Atlantic Southeast Airlines and Comair.

•Comair posted the highest rate of cancellation at 6.2%. Among major carriers, American Airlines reported the highest rate with 3.5%.

•Among major airports, Houston Intercontinental recorded the highest on-time rate with 85.8%. Newark Liberty had the lowest at 61.8%.