The nation’s top airlines continued to get passengers and their bags to their destinations on time at a decent clip in January, thanks in part to mild weather.
The 16 reporting carriers posted an on-time arrival rate of 81 percent in January. That’s down from January 2012’s 83.7 percent rate, but up from December 2012’s 76.6 percent, according to data released by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics last month.
It was the fourth highest on-time arrival rate for any January in the 19 years the Transportation Department has been collecting data.
Airlines also reported two tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights, but none lasting more than four hours on international flights.
The lengthy tarmac delays occurred Jan. 27, one on a flight headed to Chicago O’Hare Airport and the other on a flight diverted to Bowhead City, Ariz. Both are under investigation by the Transportation Department.
Airlines are required to give passengers the option of returning to the gate and getting off the plane if a domestic flight is on the tarmac for more than three hours and an international flight for more than four hours. They face fines of up to $27,500 per passenger if they violate the rule. Exceptions are allowed for security, safety or air traffic control issues.
Kevin Schorr, vice president of Campbell-Hill Aviation Group, says the airlines have been on time more because they are “just getting better about managing operations.”
It helped that there were no major significant weather events in January, he says. Even when bad weather is anticipated, airlines are quicker to cancel flights so that there aren’t long delays.
“The airlines are getting a lot more proactive about pre-canceling flights even with the threat of any kind of weather events,” he says. “Sometimes it’s justified. Sometimes after the fact, it’s not. They don’t want to leave planes in places they won’t be able to get them out.”
Year over year, there were slightly more mishandled bags in January. The airlines had 3.41 mishandled baggage reports per 1,000 passengers in January, up from last January’s 3.3 bags. Still, it was fewer than December’s rate of 4.15.
Cancellations remained the same year over year. The airlines reported canceling 1.5 percent of domestic flights in January, equal to last January’s cancellation rate. That was a slight improvement from December’s 1.6 percent rate.
Alan Bender, professor of Aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, also says industry consolidation has had an impact on airline operations.
“On the positive side, operations are generally getting more and more reliable. In other words, people can be much more confident they will get where they need to go in a timely fashion,” he says. “On the negative side, the ‘experience’ itself is not improving — and may, in fact, be further deteriorating.”
The negatives, he says, are less competition between airlines, fewer flights and more nickel-and-diming of passengers.
Consumers continued to complain about service despite the decent on-time arrivals. There were 894 complaints about U.S. airlines in January, up from 707 the previous January.
The most on-time airlines were Virgin America, Hawaiian Airlines and AirTran Airways. Hawaiian is usually in the top three because of favorable weather conditions.
The least on-time airlines were Frontier Airlines, ExpressJet Airlines, and American Eagle Airlines.
Nancy Trejos reports for USA Today.