The nation's largest airlines ended 2011 with one of their best records for getting passengers and their bags to their destinations on time.
Data released Tuesday by the Transportation Department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics on the 16 biggest U.S. airlines show that:
- Airlines had their best December in 17 years. Flights arrived on time 84.4 percent of the time, and 0.8 percent of flights were canceled. In December 2010, 72 percent of flights were on time, and 3.7 percent were canceled.
- There was less chance that bags went awry, with 99.7 percent of fliers getting bags on time. Overall, the rate of mishandled baggage fell to the lowest on record in 2011, falling to 3.39 per 1,000 passengers from 3.51 the previous year.
- Fewer passengers were bumped from their flights last year. The rate for bumping passengers was 0.81 per 10,000 passengers, down from the 1.09 rate in 2010. That's the lowest since 2002.
- Nearly eight in 10 flights, 79.6 percent, arrived at gates within 15 minutes of their scheduled time during 2011. That's down slightly from 79.8 percent the previous year, but still the fourth-highest for any year in the 17 years with comparable numbers.
Despite the performance, the Transportation Department got 3 percent more complaints against U.S. airlines in 2011 than the year before. Fliers lodged 9,425 complaints about service, which some analysts attribute to fewer flights and more crowded planes.
Crowded planes can mean greater competition for storing carry-on luggage or passengers having to pay extra fees to check their bags.
"Since you have fewer flights, the flights going out have much higher load factors than people are used to," says Addison Schonland, partner in AirInsight.com, which tracks the airline industry. "Everything is more constrained."
December is typically full of delays and cancellations because of weather and a high number of fliers. But it was calm by most standards. Winter weather was milder, and there were fewer service complaints than the year before.
Airlines have stepped up efforts to improve performance. Delta, for instance, went from eighth-most-on-time airline in 2010 to third last year, thanks to improved customer service training, expanded maintenance stations at key airports and updated technology, the airline says.
Cutbacks in flights because fewer are traveling may have contributed to fewer delays, travel analysts say. "The air-traffic control system was busting at the seams in 2005 and 2006," says Rick Seaney, of FareCompare.com.
No domestic flights stayed on tarmacs longer than three hours in December; no international flight for more than four. Flight cancellations were up slightly in 2011.
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