Fresh numbers from the U.S. Department of Transportation underscore the bleakness of 2007 for air travelers.
Just 78% of U.S. flights arrived on time in May, the industry's worst performance for that month since 2004, DOT statistics released Tuesday say. And for the first five months of this year, airlines operated just 74% of flights on time, the smallest percentage since the government began tracking their performance in 1995.
Behind the lackluster performance: understaffed airlines, a high volume of travelers, an overtaxed air traffic control system and unusually bad weather. Although U.S. airlines slipped in year-over-year comparisons, their performance gradually improved as winter turned to spring, DOT numbers show.
The carriers have made gains each month since February, when a New York ice storm wreaked havoc on the aviation system and caused the on-time arrival rate to sink to just 67%.
US Airways, for instance, lifted its on-time rate to 68% in May, up from 55% in March. The Tempe, Ariz.-based carrier hired more workers, worked out problems with its new computer reservation system and added baggage equipment at its Philadelphia hub and elsewhere.
Despite the efforts, US Airways still placed last on the list in May of 20 airlines tracked by the DOT. The airline could have done better were it not for bad weather in the Northeast and Midwest, says Andrea Rader, a spokeswoman for the airline.
"We are seeing improvement," she says. "The trend is continuing up."
In an employee newsletter, US Airways President Scott Kirby on Tuesday lauded employees for the gains but said, "Clearly, this is not where we want to be." He wrote that some of US Airways' challenges were caused by the government's air traffic control system.
In the continental USA, low-cost carrier AirTran had the best on-time performance for May. Nearly 86% of the Orlando-based airline's flights were on time, meaning they arrived within 15 minutes of their scheduled time. More findings from the DOT:
*Baggage. Travelers filed 5.9 reports of mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers in May, up from a rate of 4.9 a year earlier. American Eagle, the commuter partner of American Airlines, maintained the industry's worst ranking, with a rate of 11.6.
*Stranded planes. In May, just one flight got stranded on the runway for more than five hours: A May 16 Continental Airlines flight operated by ExpressJet from Savannah, Ga., to Newark sat on the runway for about 6 1/2 hours. That's in contrast to the 11 flights with ultralong runway waits in Februrary.
*Complaints. Passengers filed 675 complaints in May vs. 449 a year earlier.
Contributing: Barbara Hansen
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The 20 carriers reporting on-time performance recorded an overall on-time arrival rate of 80.0 percent in November.
The 18th annual Airline Quality Rating showed that domestic carriers' performance dropped in on-time arrival, involuntary bumping, mishandled luggage and customer complaints, compared with 2006.
Delays in the nation's aviation system intensified in October, causing the airline industry's on-time arrival record to fall from September's level, while still remaining ahead of last year.
The nation's largest airlines experienced improved on-time performance in April 2005 compared to both the previous month and April of last year.