Flying Late, Arriving Light

(By Laurence Kesterson -- Associated Press)
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 8, 2007

Air travelers had a tough year getting to their destinations on time -- and with bags in hand.

Airlines' on-time performance dropped for the fifth year in a row in 2006, with one in four flights arriving late or not at all, according to data released yesterday by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

It was the worst year since 2000, when bad weather and high demand kept 27 percent of flights from getting to their destinations on time.

The airlines also mishandled a massive amount of luggage -- 4 million bags, or 6.7 for every 1,000 passengers, the industry's worst rate since 1990. Most industry analysts agree that the spike in lost bags stemmed from stricter security measures that prompted passengers to check more of their luggage.

There was less consensus on the increase in delays. "We had a very bad weather year last year, and that's one of the reasons 2006 hit a record number of delays," Marion C. Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, said at a news conference last week.

Statistics seem to undercut the weather argument, according to consultants and academics who examine airline performance. The percentage of flight delays caused by weather has actually been dropping, to 45 percent last year, despite blizzards that snarled air traffic during the holiday travel season.

In 2004, half of all delays were caused by weather, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, which is part of the Transportation Department.

The increase in delays most likely resulted from airlines cutting the time aircraft are allowed on the ground before their next departure, said Ahmed Abdelghany, an assistant professor of airline management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.

Carriers have also aggressively scheduled flights at peak times, causing congestion at airports, Abdelghany said. Worker cutbacks have contributed, too, he and other experts said.

Dean Headley, co-author of the annual Airline Quality Rating report, said the delays signal that the airlines are recovering from their historic downturn.

As passenger traffic has steadily risen, airlines have been disciplined about not adding flights. The airlines also have cut their fleets, reducing the number of spare aircraft available in a pinch. Instead of canceling flights, airlines have turned to prolonging delays, Headley said.

"There is not much room for margin of error in the system now," said Headley, an associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University.

Outside experts, airline trade groups and FAA officials also blame the nation's antiquated air traffic control system for causing snarls. FAA officials are working on a billion-dollar plan to revamp it.

"We are hitting the wall in terms of the system we have today being able to handle the volume," Blakey said last week.

Among the best performers last year: Hawaiian and JetBlue airlines mishandled the fewest bags per 1,000 passengers. Atlantic Southeast Airlines, a regional carrier for Delta Air Lines, mishandled the most.

The best on-time performers were Hawaiian, Frontier and Southwest airlines, which were on time at least 80 percent of the time. The worst: Atlantic Southeast Airlines, whose flights were late 66 percent of the time.

Kate Modolo, a spokeswoman for Atlantic Southeast, said the carrier has been working to improve its baggage handling and on-time performance. Of the 20 carriers measured by the Transportation Department, Atlantic Southeast improved from the worst in on-time performance in November to the 10th-best in December. "We are on a trend of continuous improvement," she said.

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