updated 1/7/2010 4:53:59 PM ET 2010-01-07T21:53:59

The government says the nation's airlines set a record for arriving on time in November and did a better job handling checked baggage.

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The Transportation Department said Thursday that 88.6 percent of November flights arrived on time, beating the record of 88 percent set in September 2002.

Hawaiian Airlines had the best record among 19 surveyed at 93.3 percent, followed by United and Southwest.

The airlines were helped by a decline in passenger traffic that left terminals and runways less crowded than they were a year or two ago.

Still, Atlantic Southeast Airlines, which operates regional flights for Delta, managed to be officially late 19.5 percent of the time, the worst record in the field. AirTran Airways was a close runner-up.

The Transportation Department said on-time arrival performance for the first 11 months of 2009 was the best since 2003 and the third best in the 15 years that the government has been keeping track. The only years with higher on-time percentages were 2002 and 2003, when there were fewer travelers in the aftermath of the September 2001 terror attacks.

The government said airlines also did a better job handling luggage without bags getting lost, stolen, damaged or delayed.

AirTran, Hawaiian and Frontier Airlines had the lowest rates of customer complaints about mishandled bags. American Eagle, the short-flight sister carrier to American Airlines, was the worst, with 5.4 complaints filed to the government for every 1,000 passengers.

Eagle passengers were four times more likely to suffer a baggage mishap than travelers on AirTran.

Eagle was also the worst airline — by a wide margin — for bumping passengers who held confirmed reservations because the flight was oversold. JetBlue and Hawaiian reported no involuntary bumpings. Airlines often oversell flights because some passengers with refundable tickets fail to show up.

Four flights in November were delayed on the tarmac for at least three hours. Two were operated by Delta Air Lines and one each by American Eagle and Mesa Airlines.

Passenger-rights groups have complained for years about long tarmac delays. Last month, the Transportation Department set aside the objections of airlines and ordered them to let people get off planes that are stuck on the ground for more than three hours. The rule won't take effect until this spring, however.

All the figures in Thursday's report came from Transportation Department records from the biggest 19 carriers.

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