A chart in Business yesterday should have shown that 78.5 percent of USAir's arrivals at National Airport were on time in December. (Published 2/10/88)

A Federal Trade Commission staff report released yesterday said that consumers have benefited enormously from airline deregulation in both safety and cost, but pointed a finger at private planes for the increases in near misses and delays and called for higher landing fees for peak travel times.

"To me, the most interesting thing is the bad rap airlines and, in some ways, the deregulation process have been getting and why," said FTC Chairman Daniel Oliver. "CEOs and congressmen who no longer have empty planes and no lines" are responsible for many of the complaints, Oliver said, which he added may eventually affect public policy in calls for a return to regulation.

Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation yesterday reported that about one in three commercial airline flights arrived late in December, compared with one in four in November. In addition, the DOT reported that consumer complaints against the industry were up in January, as were reports of mishandled baggage.

Continental Airlines had the worst complaint record in January, with 30 complaints per 100,000 passengers, followed by Eastern Airlines with 19 and Northwest Airlines with 17 per 100,000. Continental was also one of the worst in terms of on-time flights, just behind Pacific Southwest and Alaska Airlines.

Continental was substantially affected by weather at its two main hubs, Denver and Newark, said spokesman Bruce Hicks. "As the weather at our hubs improves, so will our on-time performance," he said.

Pan American Airways, America West and Southwest Airlines had the highest percentage of on-time flights.

Transportation Secretary Jim Burnley said that bad weather accounted for many of the delays in the DOT's most recent consumer report. "I am concerned that the airlines may not be taking sufficient steps to publish realistic schedules," said Burnley, who added that the DOT will monitor the airlines to make sure that the schedules they publish are achievable.

Some of the delays that provoked an outcry about airline service last year were a result of airlines publishing what DOT called "unrealistic" schedules. For example, several airlines would list a departure hour of 8 a.m., even though it was physically impossible for that number of flights to take off simultaneously.

"Price is what most people care about," Oliver said of the FTC's staff report. While fares have dropped about 25 percent since the industry was deregulated 10 years ago, the increase in the number of people flying and the number of flights has led to a "not surprising" increase in delays and other congestion-related problems, the report said.

Aviation groups immediately blasted the FTC report, which recommended charging higher takeoff and landing fees for private planes in general and for commercial airlines that take off and land during peak traffic times.

While airlines agree with the report's premise that deregulation has little to do with flight delays and problems, the conclusion that higher fees will have a substantial effect on congestion is too simple, said William E. Jackman, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the trade group for major airlines.

What need to be addressed are much larger problems involving personnel management, procurement and the funding of the Federal Aviation Administration, Jackman said.

"My first thought was 'what the hell is the FTC doing in aircraft operations and aircraft safety -- something the Department of Transportation has been involved in for 20 years?' " said John Sheehan, executive vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents about half of all active pilots in the United States.

The FTC report, prepared by the commission's economics staff at the request of Sen. Gordon Humphrey (R-N.H.), has not been voted on by the full commission. The FTC frequently comments to DOT on matters involving airline antitrust matters.

"It's clear to us that the FTC is far out of their depth on this one," said Sheehan, who called the report "shallow, specious and ... a shoddy piece of work."

General aviation groups were particularly unhappy about the report's statement that a major cause of flight delays may be subsidies to general aviation. "General aviation is a powerful special interest group that imposes burdens on air travelers not fortunate enough to own their own airplanes," said Oliver.

In addition, the FTC report said, private planes are responsible for 96 percent of "near midair collisions," which increased from 311 in 1982 to 839 in 1986.

"The issue of safety has no relationship to this economic study of deregulation," said Sheehan.

"This is a classic, classic type of discussion by someone who doesn't understand the industry," said Jonathan Howe, president of the National Business Aircraft Association. Howe said that while it is true that private planes have more accidents and there are some inexperienced pilots, the statistical likelihood is "obviously much greater" because there are about 200,000 private planes in the country compared with about 4,000 airline planes.

Both groups said that while private pilots are more than willing to pay their fair share of landing costs, they believe that any increases should be proportional, with commercial airlines paying more as well.