U.S. airlines report 86% on-time rate in October

— -- Operating fewer flights and facing lower demand, the U.S. airlines' on-time performance continued to improve in October compared to last month and the same month a year ago, according to government data released today.

The 19 carriers filing information reported an on-time rate of 86% in October, higher than both October 2007's 78.2% and September 2008's 84.9%, 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.

In September, the industry's performance also improved, coming on heels of the busy summer travel season. Generally, there are more empty seats in the fall as leisure travelers no longer crowd the airports. But the lackluster demand was compounded this year by an economic downturn that became more pronounced in the early fall. Anticipating fewer bookings, airlines have sharply reduced their capacity this year, leading to more flights pulling out of the gate on time.

The industry's cancellation rate also improved in October. U.S. carriers canceled 0.6% of their scheduled domestic flights, lower than both 1.2% rate of October 2007 and 1.8% in September. Among the major carriers, Alaska Airlines posted the highest cancellation rate, at 0.8%.

The October report also includes, for the first time, data on lengthy tarmac delays by the carriers. Of more than 554,000 scheduled flights during the month, 50 sat on the tarmac for at least three hours before they departed or were diverted or canceled. ExpressJet, a regional airline based in Houston that operates as Continental Express, was the worst performer, with 21 of the 50 flights that sat for at least three hours.

On average, flights that pulled out of the gate before being canceled sat on the tarmac for about 37 minutes.

Among other findings:

•Better weather. About 34.5% of late flights were attributed to bad weather, down from 39.8% a year ago.

•Improved baggage handling. The U.S. carriers reported a mishandled baggage rate of 3.55 reports per 1,000 passengers in October, an improvement over both October 2007's rate of 5.37 and September 2008's 3.86.

•Fewer complaints. The DOT received 627 complaints about airline service from consumers, down from 1,099 in October 2007.

•Best and worst airlines. Among the major carriers, Continental Airlines reported the lowest on-time rate at 81.4%. Northwest, with 90% of its flights arriving on time, had the highest rate.

•Best and worst airports. Flights at Salt Lake City International had the highest on-time arrival rate, with 92.5%. Newark Liberty was the worst, with only 68% arriving on time.

•Worst flight. American Airlines flight 933 from New York JFK to Miami was late 81% of the time, making it the most consistently delayed flight in the USA.