Airlines Getting More Things Right

Airlines have been getting a lot of things right lately.

Aug. 17, 2012— -- You shove your bag in the overhead bin, settle into a seat and glance out the window. That's when you notice something odd: it looks like a piece of the wing is missing. Odder still is the hand-written note on the wing that says, "We know about this."

Sounds ominous, doesn't it? Good to know a problem has been recognized, but it'd be even better to know something's being done about it.

This confidence-shaking anecdote ricocheted around the Internet last week, and while Alaska Airlines duly apologized (the message was meant to avoid redundant damage reports and the plane was perfectly safe), it was a rare misstep. Airlines have been getting a lot of things right lately.

Let us count the ways. And don't worry, I'll also mention what they get very, very wrong.

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Fewer Lost Bags

Rarely is a bag lost forever, which is why the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) calls this first category "mishandled baggage." Not that we care if a bag is a day or a month late; we want our suitcase now. The good news is, airlines are mishandling fewer of them.

According to the government numbers crunchers, the rate of bag problems dropped to an all-time low of 2.97 reports per 1,000 passengers compared with 3.60 reports last year. You're least likely to lose a bag flying Virgin America, followed by AirTran and JetBlue. The biggest loser? American Eagle.

Fewer Stuck-on-the-Tarmac Nightmares

It was like something out of a horror show: 700 passengers were trapped on JetBlue planes last fall waiting out a freak October snowstorm, and for some the wait lasted a nightmarish seven hours. During that eternity, babies screamed, food and water ran out and toilets overflowed. Fortunately, we're seeing fewer such episodes.

In the first six months of this year, there were just four such incidents; in 2009, there were 586! But that was before the new Dept. of Transportation (DOT) rules went into effect which put airlines on notice that tarmac delays over three hours would no longer be tolerated (except in extreme cases having to do with safety); rule violators started facing steep fines of $27,500 - per passenger. Suddenly, "trapped on tarmac" incidents began to disappear.

On-time Arrival Improvement

If you've ever had a career-making/breaking business meeting to attend, or a scared puppy in cargo, or friends or relatives waiting for you at the airport, you know the importance of an on-time arrival; so you'll be glad to hear that airlines had their best performance in that category during the first half of this year. In fact, it was their best on-time performance since the BTS began collecting such stats 18 years ago.

You could attribute it to any number of things: better traffic flow, fewer flights due to capacity cuts, fewer airlines due to mergers. Plus carriers are keenly that on-time stats now show up online in itineraries when shoppers are looking for price quotes. Then there's the little matter of the DOT being headed by a zealous consumer advocate and Secretary Ray LaHood does not hesitate to point out when airlines mess up (and doesn't hesitate to fine them, either, if warranted).

So airlines want their on-time numbers to look good just as much as you do, which is why you'll see a lot of flights leaving a little early. Keep this in mind when deciding when to leave for the airport; a flight's official departure time is not etched in stone.

Airline Complaints Rising

Now for the bad news: we have less love for our airlines, if the complaint figures are any guide. A shocker, I know. Actually, it is a bit surprising because in the first six months of this year vs. last year, complaints jumped almost 24 percent. Most of these unhappy experiences fell under the category of flight problems, with cancellations, delays and misconnections leading the way; baggage complaints were a distant second.

The biggest offender, in terms of the sheer volume of complaints was United Airlines, but some of this may be the result of ongoing computer glitches that began last spring when United merged its site with Continental's. United also led in complaints per number of flights. Least complaints per flights: no-frills Southwest, which may have more to do with free bags and lower expectations. Among the bigger airlines, Delta had the least complaints, ranking seven out of 16 reporting carriers.

By the way, the fewest number of complaints involved the handling of animals; there were only three of these.

Dead Pets

Unfortunately, all three of those complaints involved pets that died enroute to their destinations, but none of these deaths were ruled the airlines' fault. For example, one involved a dog who had chronic cardiac disease as revealed in the necropsy (yes, they generally do such procedures after an animal dies). Any death is unfortunate, but not all animals should fly.

If I had to sum it all up - all this latest airline data - I'd say that airlines in general are getting more efficient. It's also nice to know that fewer bags are getting lost, which makes those fees a little easier to bear. Combine this with the fact that we'll see a sharp drop in airfares at the end of the month, and autumn is looking like a terrific time for a getaway.

Let's just hope you don't run into any mysterious hand-written messages on your aircraft.

The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his alone and not those of ABC News.