updated 10/23/2007 6:38:31 PM ET 2007-10-23T22:38:31

Airlines that operate chronically delayed flights could face stiff fines in the coming weeks as the U.S. government concludes a six-month investigation into potentially deceptive business practices.

The Transportation Department in May began investigating flights that are at least 15 minutes late more than 70 percent of the time, and so far has identified 26 that meet those criteria, an agency spokesman said Tuesday.

If any of those 26 flights also were delayed in the most recent quarter being reviewed, the responsible airlines will face "significant financial penalties," agency spokesman Brian Turmail said. Results of the investigation are expected within weeks.

The commercial airlines trade group criticized the government's possible penalties.

"We're disappointed that they're taking this course of action given the effort by industry to significantly reduce delays," said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association.

"No one has greater incentive to move its flights on-time than the airlines," Castelveter said, because they cost the industry $6 billion per year and it means "we fail our customers." But the answer is not eliminating flights from the chronically delayed list, which are there based on customer demand, he added.

The Federal Aviation Administration handles roughly 85,000 flights per day, a number predicted to reach more than 111,000 daily flights by 2020.

But delays this summer reached record levels. The Transportation Department earlier this month said more than 25 percent of domestic flights arrived late between January and August — easily the industry's worst performance since comparable data began being collected in 1995.

In August alone, 23 flights were late at least 90 percent of the time and more than 100 flights were late at least 80 percent of the time. Almost half of Atlantic Southeast Airlines' flights were delayed, and two arrived late every time they took off.

Kristen Loughman, a spokeswoman for the Delta Connection carrier owned by SkyWest Inc., said the company was not aware of any fines being considered by the government. Any Atlantic Southeast flight on the Transportation Department's monthly report of delays becomes its top priority to fix, she added.

Other airlines that operated flights that were late at least 90 percent of the time in August were: ExpressJet Holdings Inc., which flies regional service for Continental Airlines Inc.; SkyWest Inc.; AirTran Holdings Inc.; Delta Air Lines Inc. and its subsidiary Comair Inc.

Also Tuesday, federal aviation regulators opened a two-day summit aimed at fixing "epidemic" delays at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The latest government proposal for reducing congestion at JFK, which had the worst on-time departure record of any major U.S. airport through August, is to reduce the hourly flight limit by 20 percent.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters repeated the government's desire for airlines to voluntarily change their summer 2008 flight schedules in order to alleviate record delays at JFK and other airports, but also reiterated that schedule reduction mandates remain an option.

Peters said she has "high hopes for market-based incentives," including raising landing fees for airlines during peak periods, to help reduce record delays at JFK and elsewhere.

But airlines say that so-called "congestion pricing" approach would simply result in higher fares and pledged to challenge mandates for it, or mandated schedule cuts, in court or legislatively.

Other recommendations for reducing airline delays are due by Dec. 10 from an aviation rules committee made up of airline executives, government officials and aviation groups. The scheduling summit is being carried out in parallel to that process and FAA officials expect a series of one-on-one meetings with airlines to continue through early December.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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