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Airlines, airports improving on-time flights, fewer lost bags

NEW YORK – U.S. airlines are more punctual and less likely to lose your bag than at any time in more than two decades.

Travelers still have to put up with packed planes, rising fees and unpredictable security lines, but nearly 84 percent of domestic flights arrived within 15 minutes of their scheduled time during the first half of the year – the best performance since the government started keeping track in 1988.

The improvement over the first six months of 2011, when 77 percent of flights were on time, is largely credited to good weather and fewer planes in the sky because of the weak economy.

Airlines also are doing a better job of handling bags. Fewer than three suitcases per 1,000 passengers were reported lost, damaged or delayed from January through June, a record low.

"My flights this year have been way better," said Amanda Schuier, a sales manager for a Kansas City, Mo., trucking supplier who flies roughly four times a week. "In the past six months, I’ve only had two delays."

At McCarran International Airport, the numbers also have improved. This year, arrivals hit the gate on time 86.7 percent of the time compared to 79.2 percent last year, according to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics. Departures pulled away from the gate on time 83 percent of the time this year compared to 77 percent in 2011.

The arrival performance boosted McCarran from 10th last year to fifth-best this year among 29 major airports, but the rank dropped from 17 to 19 for departures.

At this pace, the airlines could beat their best full-year performance, seen in 1991, when nearly 83 percent of flights arrived on time. The worst full year was 2000, at 73 percent, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data.

The worst year for baggage was 1989, when nearly eight suitcases per 1,000 passengers were late, lost or damaged.

There are still problems. About one in six flights is late, and that’s after airlines adjusted schedules to account for congestion, said airline consultant Michael Boyd.

On-time flights aren’t just good for passengers. At an average of $75 per minute to operate a plane, domestic delays last year cost airlines an estimated $5.2 billion. U.S. airlines made a combined $577 million in profit last year.

Nature has been kind to airlines, dishing up 10 percent fewer thunderstorms and far less snow in places like New York, which has seen about 3 inches this year compared with an average of 20.

The recession led fewer people to fly and prompted airlines to ground planes, clearing up airspace. In 2007, 14.8 million flights took off or landed at the nation’s 35 largest airports, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Last year it was 13.3 million, a 10 percent drop.

The airlines also are taking steps to improve performance. They include:

■ Better technology, including newer planes with fewer maintenance problems.

■ Flight times have been extended to account for air traffic delays.

■ Timely delivery of food and fuel. Airline contracts with suppliers now include incentives for on-time deliveries and penalties for late ones.

■ Improved boarding procedures, including streamlined gate procedures and larger overhead baggage bins.

■ New government rules. Airlines must display on-time performance for each flight on their websites.

There are also stiff penalties for long delays. A plane held on the ground for more than three hours can result in a maximum fine of $27,500 per passenger.

Review-Journal writer Tim O’Reiley contributed to this report.

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