Travelers still have to put up with packed planes, rising fees and unpredictable security lines, but they are late to fewer business meetings and are not missing as many chances to tuck their children into bed.
Nearly 84 percent of domestic flights arrived within 15 minutes of their scheduled time in the first half of the year – the best performance since the government started keeping track in 1988.
The improvement over the first six months of 2011, when 77 percent of flights were on time, is mostly a result of good weather and fewer planes in the sky because of the weak economy.
Airlines are also doing a better job of handling bags.
Fewer than three suitcases per 1,000 passengers were reported lost, damaged or delayed from January through June, a record low.
The two areas of improvement are related: When flights are late, bags often miss their connection.
“My flights this year have been way better,” said Amanda Schuier, a sales manager for a Kansas City, Mo., trucking supplier who flies roughly four times a week. “In the past six months, I’ve only had two delays.”
If the current pace continues, the airlines will beat their best full-year performance, recorded in 1991, when nearly 83 percent of flights arrived on time. The worst full year was 2000, when just 73 percent of flights arrived on time, according to an Associated Press analysis of Bureau of Transportation Statistics data.
The worst year for baggage handling was 1989, when nearly eight suitcases per 1,000 passengers were reported late, lost or damaged.
There are still problems. About one out of every six flights is late – and that’s after airlines have adjusted schedules to account for congestion, said airline consultant Michael Boyd.
“That’s an indictment, not a record,” he said.
When flights are on time, it isn’t just good for passengers – it also helps the airlines’ bottom lines. The industry says it costs an average of $75 a minute to operate a plane. Last year, domestic delays cost airlines an estimated $5.2 billion. U.S. airlines made a combined $577 million in profit last year.
The airlines also are taking steps to improve their on-time performance. They include:
• Airlines are flying newer planes with fewer maintenance problems. New tools track the boarding of passengers and loading of baggage onto individual flights. If either falls behind schedule, extra workers are deployed.
• Flight times have been extended on some trips to account for air traffic delays.
• Airlines have revised contracts with food and fuel suppliers to include incentives for on-time deliveries and penalties for late ones.
• Improved boarding procedures. The order passengers get on a plane has been streamlined, and larger overhead bins have been installed.
New government rules also deter delays. The Department of Transportation now requires airlines to display the on-time performance of each flight on their Web sites. There are also stiff penalties for long delays.