updated 9/7/2007 6:47:54 PM ET 2007-09-07T22:47:54

Summer flights arrived late at the world's busiest airport more often this year than last, but federal aviation officials said Friday the Atlanta airport is nevertheless on pace to have the lowest annual rate of delays since 2003.

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Officials said the summer delays likely will be remembered as a blip caused by bad weather because Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport may end the year with its lowest rate of delays since 2003.

They said the drop in delays was largely a result of the May 2006 opening of a $1.3 billion fifth runway and the April introduction of a $42.5 million end-around taxiway that allows planes to travel to gates without crossing Atlanta's busy runways.

"Our efficiency can be attributed to many factors, a major one being the fifth runway," said Herschel Grangent, airport spokesman. "In its first year of its existence, the fifth runway handled more than 95,000 takeoffs and landings by itself, resulting in a 78 percent reduction in flights held (delayed) at Hartsfield-Jackson."

Nearly a third (32 percent) of flights were delayed in July at the Atlanta airport, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics. In June, 29 percent of the Atlanta airport's flights were delayed. Only a quarter of flights were delayed there during the same months a year ago.

Overall this year, 22.5 percent of flights have been delayed at the Atlanta airport, which has an on-time arrival rate of greater than 75 percent, the lowest rate of delay for the airport since 2003 when less than 1 in 5 flights were delayed and the airport's on-time arrival rate was greater than 79 percent.

"Atlanta ... has been running very efficiently," said Doug Murphy, regional administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration. "This is an airport that is designed and used very efficiently for arrivals and departures. Some airports suffer from limitations of airport length and surrounding terrain."

A flight is considered delayed if it arrived at its gate 15 minutes or more after its scheduled arrival time.

Officials from airlines that use the airport such as Delta Air Lines Inc. and AirTran Airways said Atlanta's improvements have provided better on-time performance and helped aircraft operations run more smoothly.

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