Thanksgiving holiday fliers will face packed planes this week, but there's one piece of good news: Flight delays have fallen sharply this fall.
Schedule reductions by financially struggling airlines combined with government efforts to ease congestion at New York City's airports seem to have worked, according to industry and government officials and outside experts.
Travelers have better odds of smooth sailing than during recent Thanksgiving holidays — though weather, the primary cause of delays, could still gum up the works at the busiest hubs.
From Sept. 1 through Nov. 17, flights arrived more than 15 minutes late 17 percent of the time compared with 21 percent for the same period last year, according to FlightStats, an aviation data company. In 2006, 26 percent of flights were late over the same period.
This past September was the eighth-best month for on-time performance since the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics began tracking the data in 1995.
Improvements were more significant for longer delays. The rate of flights late by 45 minutes or more fell 20 percent compared with last year.
"The drop in delays has been expected because of the slowdown in activity in the system," said John Hansman, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Passenger flights at the nation's 36 largest airports fell 6.4 percent this fall compared with last year, according to FlightStats.
Even small reductions in flights at congested airports can improve on-time performance because tardy flights have a chance to catch up.
"I think as we see more drawdowns, we'll see some further reduction in delays," said Basil Barimo, vice president of the Air Transport Association, a large airline trade group.
Even the airports with the most delays — Philadelphia and the three near New York — improved. Delays at New York's LaGuardia fell 18 percent, while the other three showed modest improvements.
Last spring, the government reduced the flights allowed per hour at New York's airports. From May through August, departures more than an hour late fell by 24 percent at John F. Kennedy International, a sign the government efforts are working, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said.
Airlines say the airports remain more congested than average and the government needs to do more. "New York is far from fixed," Barimo said.
Hansman said the data does not suggest the clogged skies of recent years are a thing of the past.
"This is actually the time to be more aggressive in trying to get through improvements to the system," he said. "You don't want to be fixing the roof when it's raining."
The Transportation Department in May began investigating flights that are at least 15 minutes late more than 70 percent of the time.
At Detroit Metro Airport, NWA will operate 27 fewer Northwest, Mesaba and Pinnacle flights every day.
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