U.S. airlines report 80% on-time rate in May

U.S. airlines are doing a better job this year of getting passengers to their destinations on schedule.

The Transportation Department reported Thursday that 80.5% of the flights operated by the nation's 19 largest airlines arrived on time in May, compared with 79.1% of the time in April and 79% in May 2008.

The airlines improved their on-time arrival performance every month this year except March and did better than in the first five months of last year, the department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported.

Helping drive the improvement: a reduced number of flights, which eases airport congestion. Airlines are making fewer seats available because fewer people are traveling during the recession.

Despite the improvement, there's no guarantee fliers are getting to their destinations any faster.

Aviation consultant Michael Baiada says airlines have lengthened the estimated flight time published on their schedules. That makes it easier for the airlines to report being on time, though it takes longer to travel than in the past, he says.

Also, flights are considered on time if they arrive within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival. Baiada estimates that if that time is counted, then the airlines' on-time arrival rates would drop by 12 to 15 percentage points.

It's "an industry that delivers 40% of its products late," he says.

Comair, a regional carrier owned by Delta, posted the worst arrival rate in May, being on time 65.7% of the time. Atlantic Southeast Airlines, a Delta connection carrier, followed with 70.8%. Among major carriers, AirTran (75.6%) had the worst rate. Alaska posted the best on-time rate among major carriers, with 85.7%.

Also reported:

•Tarmac delays. In May, 25 flights waited three hours or more in taxi lanes before departing. Mesa, American Eagle, Southwest and JetBlue each reported a flight that had a ground delay of four hours or more. Two of them occurred at the congested New York JFK airport.

•Mishandled baggage. The airlines posted a rate of mishandled baggage of 3.56 per 1,000 passengers in May. That was an improvement over both the May 2008 rate of 4.6 and April's 3.79 rate.

•Customer complaints. The department received 656 complaints from consumers about service in April. That's down from 885 in May 2008 and 781 in April.

•Cancellation. The carriers canceled slightly less than 1% of their scheduled domestic flights in May. That's lower than the 1% in May 2008 and 1.5% posted in April.