With fewer flights, airlines improved performance in September

— -- The U.S. airlines' on-time performance improved in September as the industry handled fewer flights amid lower demand, according to government data released Friday.

The 19 carriers filing information reported an on-time rate of 84.9% in September, higher than both September 2007's 81.7% and August 2008's 78.4%, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics. A flight is counted as "on time" if it arrives within 15 minutes of the scheduled time.

Airline performance generally improves in early fall, as the busy summer season winds down and the relatively slow pre-holiday period kicks in. Moreover, the industry has aggressively cut back flights in many domestic markets in the face of rising jet fuel prices earlier this year and a slowing economy. The cutbacks have resulted in faster flight turnarounds and less congestion in busy hubs, where delays can trigger stacked runways throughout the system.

The industry's cancellation rate worsened slightly in September. U.S. carriers canceled 1.8% of their scheduled domestic flights, higher than both 1.1% rate of September 2008 and August 2008's 1.6%. Continental Airlines was the worst offender, with more than 6% of its flights canceled.

Among other findings:

•Weather woes. More than 37% of late flights were attributed to bad weather, up from 34.2% a year ago.

•Better baggage handling. The U.S. carriers reported a mishandled baggage rate of 3.86 reports per 1,000 passengers in September, an improvement over both September 2007's rate of 5.36 and August 2008's 4.98.

•Fewer complaints. The DOT received 684 complaints about airline service from consumers, down 24% from September 2007 and 32% fewer than August 2008.

•Best and worst performers. Among the major carriers, United Airlines reported the lowest on-time rate at 79.8%. Northwest, with 89.5% of its flights arriving on time, had the highest rate.

•Worst flight. American Airlines flight 1267 from Miami to San Juan was late 87% of the time, making it the most consistently delayed flight in the USA.