The nation's largest airlines have been getting passengers to their destinations on time so far this year at one of the highest rates since the U.S. Department of Transportation has started keeping track, according to new data released Tuesday.
From January to June, the top 16 airlines delivered flights to their destinations within 15 minutes of schedule 78.1% of the time, the sixth-highest for the January to June period in 19 years with comparable numbers, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
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Cancellations were also down. The carriers canceled 1.68% of flights, the seventh-lowest rate in 19 years.
But the airlines mishandled more bags in the first six months of this year than they did last year. The mishandled baggage rate was 3.23 per 1,000 passengers, up from 2.97 in the first half of 2012.
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Airlines have enjoyed a long-running streak of getting their planes to their destinations on time and canceling fewer flights. Analysts have attributed that to a variety of reasons, from mild weather to operational improvements to the fact that the carriers are generally flying fewer planes.
"Although poor weather, such as severe summer thunderstorms, can throw a monkey wrench in the best of operations, the airlines are clearly making an effort to improve their reliability, and it has paid off," says Alan Bender, professor of Aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "Airline mergers and the lackluster economy have meant fewer flights - and fewer flights means less congestion and therefore, better on-time performance."
He also says that stricter penalties by the Department of Transportation for lengthy tarmac delays have forced airlines to get their planes in the air on time.
Airlines must now let passengers off the aircraft if they're sitting on the tarmac for more than three hours on domestic flights and four hours on international flights. Exceptions are made for safety, security and air traffic control-related issues.
There were two reported tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights and one tarmac delay of more than four hours on an international flight in June.
The two domestic cases involved a SkyWest Airlines flight from Charlotte to Washington Dulles on June 13 and an ExpressJet Airlines flight from Houston to Lafayette, La., on June 6.
The international flight was run by Jazz Aviation from Montreal to Washington Reagan on June 28.
All three incidents are under investigation by the DOT. Airlines can be fined up to $27,500 a person for such delays.
For June, the most recent month for which the BTS has numbers, airlines were on time slightly less. Flights were on time 71.9% of the time, vs. 80.7% last June and 79.4% in May of this year.
The carriers also canceled 1.8% of their domestic flights in June, up from 1.1% in June 2012 and May 2013.
There were 3.83 reports of mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers in June, up from both June 2012's rate of 3.35 and May 2013's rate of 2.96.
Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst with R.W. Mann and Co., said the higher number of mishandled bags could be the result of the closer connections typical for Southwest Airlines, as well as "a structural lack of resources provided to regional partners."
Separately, FlightStats, which tracks more than 150,000 flights per day worldwide, found that North American airlines delivered 73.44% of their flights on time in July, down slightly from 73.57% in June and 79.98% in May. But cancellations dropped to 1.92% from 2.1%. FlightStats tracks 45 U.S. airlines vs. the government's 16.
Consumers complained less about U.S. airlines, the Transportation Department reported. There were 944 complaints about U.S. Airlines in June of this year, vs. 1,352 last June.
The most on-time airlines in June were Hawaiian Airlines, which benefits from mild weather, Alaska Airlines and Frontier Airlines. The least on-time were American Eagle Airlines, AirTran Airways and ExpressJet Airlines.
New York area airports had the most delayed flights. LaGuardia had the lowest on-time arrivals - 60.92% - of the 29 busiest airports in June. Salt Lake City had the highest, with 85.22% arriving on time.
Newark's Liberty International had the lowest on-time arrivals - 67.1% - from January to June. Phoenix had the highest, with 85.46% arriving on time.
Ron Marsico, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airports, said the "airports often post these results because our airspace has the greatest share of the nation's air traffic, and poor weather typically exacerbates the delays here more than other regions, because the high-volume leads to cascading backups."
By Nancy Trejos, USA TODAY
Gannett / USA Today