After summer of delays, some airports improve

In a year dominated by record delays, stranded passengers and the ripple effects from New York's packed airspace, travelers at a few airports have received a lucky surprise: more on-time flights.

In the first nine months of this year, the average on-time arrival rate at the nation's 32 busiest airports dropped to 73.2 percent from 76.1 percent a year earlier, according to the Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics. But eight major airports have managed to buck the trend.

Four are in California - San Diego, Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco - apparently benefiting from unusually dry conditions this year in the Golden State. Houston's rain-battered George Bush Intercontinental has also seen a modest uptick in timely landings, as has the world's busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta. The other two: Las Vegas and Chicago's Midway.

Meanwhile, the chances of getting bumped from a flight worsened in the third quarter compared with the year-earlier period, according to figures released last week by the Transportation Department, which is considering raising the maximum amount airlines pay to compensate customers for being bumped from overbooked flights. The largest U.S. carriers turned away scheduled passengers at a rate of 0.99 per every 10,000 fliers, the DOT said. That's up from 0.70 in the year-earlier period.

The airline industry has blamed everything from private jets to Congress for its poor on-time performance this year. But the continued improvement at these eight airports shows there is a lot the facilities themselves can do to improve travel conditions.

Both Houston and Atlanta have expanded in recent years, adding runways and gates to accommodate an increased number of passengers. T hey also have taken creative steps to improve the flow of planes in the air and on the ground.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc. says area navigation and other improvements at Hartsfield are reducing delays for its flights by between 2.6 and 4.5 minutes per departure. So far this year, 74.7 percent of flights have been arriving on time into Hartsfield, compared with 72.4 percent for the year-earlier period and 69.9 percent in 2005.

"Getting in and out of Atlanta seems to have improved," said Trey Loughran, a senior vice president with Atlanta-based Equifax Inc., who flies out of there about 30 times a year.

Houston's Bush Intercontinental has relied on a mix of expansion and new technology to keep its on-time arrival rate above 78 percent and even to improve it slightly from last year.

Unlike airports in crowded urban areas, such as New York's John F. Kennedy International and La Guardia airports, Bush Intercontinental has ample space to grow. In recent years, it has built a new runway and converted another from general aviation to commercial use. A new terminal brought 23 new gates, raising its overall gate capacity today to 151 from 128 in 2002.

Lisa Hurst, director of travel for San Diego-based Petco Animal Supplies Inc., said her employees have more problems connecting through Dallas, Denver and Chicago. "I try to route people through Houston if possible, " she said.

Many factors outside airports' control affect whether flights arrive on time, including weather and the performance of major carriers. Oakland International and San Diego International have benefited from drier weather this year. Another help is the track record of Southwest Airlines, which lands more than 80 percent of its flights on time and is the dominant carrier at both airports.