By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/16/2010 8:59:50 AM ET 2010-02-16T13:59:50

Hatin’ on the airlines — it’s all the rage these days.

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Funny thing, though. Based on the latest data from the Department of Transportation (DOT), the airlines improved their performance last year by almost every parameter. And while this month has been a storm-driven disaster, there’s cause for cautious optimism about the year ahead.

The year in review
Last year, the airlines operated 79.5 percent of their flights on time (i.e., within 15 minutes of their posted schedule). That was up from a less-than-stellar 76 percent in 2008 and a miserable 73.4 percent in 2007. At the same time, flight cancellations dropped 29 percent, from 1.95 to 1.38 percent.

(Last year also represented the first full year in which the airlines were required to report extended tarmac delays; hence, year-over-year comparisons aren’t available. Instead, suffice it to say that the 1,146 planes that sat on the ground for three hours or more and the 227 that sat for four or more were 1,173 too many.)

The airlines also mishandled fewer bags — down 26 percent, to 3.91 per 1,000 passengers — and received 17 percent fewer complaints (8,819 vs. 10,643). Denied boardings (involuntary bumps), on the other hand, rose 7 percent to 1.19 per 10,000 passengers.

Then again, the airlines ought to be operating more efficiently if for no other reason than they’re flying fewer planes, carrying fewer passengers and handling fewer bags. Between capacity cuts, baggage fees and the recession, systems that were stretched to the breaking point — and often beyond — are becoming more manageable.

According to DOT, U.S. airlines operated 8 million flights last year (through October), down 10.3 percent from two years earlier.

  • According to the Air Transport Association, domestic seat capacity in 2009 was approximately 680 billion ASMs (available seat miles, a standard industry measure equal to one seat flown one mile), on a par with 2002.
  • Baggage fees, it turns out, have done more than add big bucks to the industry’s bottom line; they’ve also reduced the number of checked bags airlines have to handle in the first place. US Airways, for example, is now processing 20 percent fewer bags than it was before it implemented baggage fees.

Slideshow: Awful airlines

The year ahead
Whether or not the recent improvements will continue through the coming year is an open question. Ultimately, the usual uncertainties — oil prices, consumer demand, etc. — will set the tone for air travel but recent developments suggest that the flying public may get some relief in the coming months:

  • Fewer long delays: In April, DOT’s much-anticipated rule requiring airlines to let passengers disembark after they’ve been stuck on the tarmac for three hours will go into effect. There are major exceptions regarding weather, passenger safety, etc., but the threat of fines of up to $27,500 per passenger will clearly be an incentive for the airlines to comply.
  • Stiffer penalties for poor performance: Last September, DOT fined Spirit Airlines a record $375,000 for violating several consumer-protection rules, including bumping passengers without compensation and failing to resolve baggage claims within a reasonable time. A few weeks later, the department issued additional guidance telling the airlines that any “arbitrary limits” on reimbursement procedures for missing bags would also be considered a violation.
  • Increasing baggage fees: Call it the silver lining in the dark cloud of à la carte airfare. Last month, Delta, United and Continental raised their fees on checked bags again (to $23–$25 on one bag and to $32–$35 for a second bag). As other airlines follow suit, more passengers will be motivated to pack lighter and fewer bags will get checked and subsequently go missing.

Slideshow: Cartoons: Danger in the air

The down side
Those are the bright spots. Unfortunately, there will also be a few bumps along the way.

  • Jam-up at JFK: On March 1, the busiest runway at New York’s JFK airport will close for four months while it’s being rebuilt. The impact will likely be felt far beyond the airport boundaries as delays at any of the three New York airports tend to ripple through the nation’s air-traffic system.
  • More cancellations: Remember those $27,500-per-passenger fines for violating DOT’s three-hour rule on tarmac delays? Even though delays of three hours or more are statistically insignificant, the ticking clock — and the threat of multi-million-dollar fines for passing 2:59 — may lead to more pre-emptive cancellations.
  • The dark side of increasing demand: As people start traveling again, planes will become even more crowded, more passengers will likely be bumped and those that do will find even less availability on subsequent flights.

Put it all together and you’ve got a clear case of mixed signals, which almost constitutes a positive development, given how consistently dismal the last few years have been. And while the outlook for air travel during 2010 doesn’t warrant celebration, a sigh of relief may be in order.

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea,drop him an e-mail.

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