Dulles Lands On-Time Title for December

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, February 7, 2006

If your flight arrives on time, there's a good chance it's touching down at Washington's Dulles International Airport.

For the first time in its 44-year history, Dulles ranked No. 1 among the nation's 33 largest airports with the most on-time flights in one month, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

During December, more than 79 percent of Dulles's flights arrived on time, reflecting one of the largest on-time improvements of any airport. In December 2004, Dulles ranked 14th with 72 percent of its flights arriving on time.

Reagan National Airport also saw a major increase in on-time performance. The airport ranked fifth in December with 77 percent of flights on time, up from ninth in December 2004. Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport ranked fourth, the same as a year ago.

For all of 2005, Dulles ranked 14th in on-time arrivals, up from 20th in 2004. But Reagan National dropped to 15th, down from 10th place. BWI remained in ninth place for both years. The nation's No. 1 on-time airport for 2005 was Salt Lake City International.

Dulles's increased performance was striking for several reasons. First, 2005 was a record year for Dulles. The airport had 27 million passengers and nearly 510,000 flights last year, the highest in its history, according to figures supplied by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Dulles is the nation's 19th-busiest airport.

Also, Dulles is undergoing major -- and much-needed -- construction as it prepares for new runways and an underground passenger rail system to connect the terminal and concourses. Dulles helped better its on-time rating by restricting most construction to off-peak hours, said industry observers. In the past, the airport had worked on runways during busy periods of arrivals and departures, said James Ries, acting manager of the Federal Aviation Administration's command center in Herndon.

Another reason Dulles's on-time performance improved was attributed -- ironically -- to the now-defunct Independence Air. According to a source familiar with the industry, several airlines increased their scheduled arrival times in an effort to thwart Independence Air's growth. "When they saw that Independence Air was adding flights, they added more flights and padded their schedules with the thought there might be more delays," said one insider who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The end of Independence means fewer flights, leading to less congestion, which should help keep Dulles's on-time rating high, some airline executives said. That's good news for airlines, including United, Dulles's busiest carrier. Larry DeShon, senior vice president of airport operations for United Airlines, said Independence's demise means about 150 fewer daily flights at Dulles.

And while Dulles's performance improved, the rest of the airline industry had a much more difficult year. Airlines reported a 23 percent increase in mishandled bags. And the number of overall complaints, including late flights, problems in obtaining refunds and poor employee relations, increased by 17.2 percent, to 8,735.

Independence Air reported the second-best on-time rate of any airline, with 78.7 percent of its flights arriving within 14 minutes of schedule in December, behind only Hawaiian Airlines. But some airlines watched their operations decline last year. Alaska Airlines, Atlantic Southeast and Air Tran had the worst on-time arrival rates of any of the nation's top 20 airlines. Hawaiian, Sky West and ATA had the best on-time performance.

JetBlue Airways, which had the most late flights in December and the fourth-worst on-time performance for 2005, said it is working on improving operations. Rob Maruster, JetBlue's vice president of operational planning, blamed the airline's on-time record largely on congestion at some of its largest airports, including New York's JFK International.

Maruster said JetBlue plans to improve performance by reducing aircraft turnaround time between flights from a range of 45 to 55 minutes to one of 35 to 40 minutes. JetBlue also plans to review repeatedly late flights and decide whether to increase the scheduled arrival time by five to 10 minutes.

"We are not pleased with our performance. We have to deliver a schedule customers want to fly and fly reliably," Maruster said.

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