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Airlines have one of their best years for arriving on time

February 14, 2012
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The nation’s largest airlines had one of their best years for getting passengers to their destinations on time in 2011, despite unexpected snowstorms and Tropical Storm Irene, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported Tuesday.

Airlines were on time 79.6% of the time during 2011, the fourth highest for any year in the 17 years with comparable numbers. That was slightly down from the 79.8% on-time rate of 2010.

But December, a month typically fraught with delays and cancellations because of weather and high passenger volume, was a particularly good month for airlines.

Airlines were on time 84.4% of the time in December, the highest percentage for any December during the 17 years the department has collected comparable data and the best fourth-quarter performance ever. That was significantly up from 72% in December 2010, but down slightly from November 2011’s 85.3%.

The carriers also had the lowest December cancellation rate in the last 17 years, according to the department’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Only 0.8% of flights were canceled compared to 3.7% in December 2010.

No domestic flights remained on the tarmac for longer than three hours in December. Neither did any international flights stay on the tarmac for more than four hours. Federal law prohibits airlines from keeping passengers in planes on tarmacs for longer than that.

The Transportation Department has been paying closer attention to tarmac delays this year, and has so far fined one airline —American Eagle— for exceeding the time limits. Two airplanes sat on the tarmac for longer than the government allows in November and 18 did in October, when an unusual snowstorm pummeled the East Coast.

In 2011, airlines also did a better job of handling baggage. Carriers posted a mishandled baggage rate of 3.39 per 1,000 passengers. That was down from 3.51 in 2010. That also was an all-time low for any year, and translates into 99.7% of U.S. airline passengers having their bags delivered on time.

Fewer passengers were bumped from their flights last year. The rate for bumping passengers was 0.81 per 10,000 passengers, down from the 1.09 rate in 2010. In the fourth quarter, just 0.71 per 10,000 passengers were bumped, down from 0.8 the same period the year before.

Despite the airlines’ better performance in 2011 on those fronts, the Transportation Department received 5.1% more complaints about their service in 2011 than it did the year before. For all of last year, 11,545 complaints were logged. Nonetheless, complaints were down for the month of December compared with the same time the previous year.

In December, the airlines with the best on-time performance were AirTran Airways, which is merging with Southwest Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, which benefits from favorable weather, and Delta Air Lines. The carriers with the worst were Frontier Airlines, ExpressJet Airlines and Continental Airlines, which is merging with United Airlines.

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