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updated 3/7/2011 1:05:57 PM ET 2011-03-07T18:05:57

Nearly 4 percent of all U.S. flights were canceled in January as severe winter storms paralyzed most of the East, but just one flight was stuck on the ground for more than three hours, the government said Monday.

The report from the Transportation Department underlined what many travelers already knew — airlines are avoiding the huge fines threatened for holding passengers too long. For one thing, they are canceling flights before they have a chance to be delayed.

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The cancellation rate of 3.87 percent in January is the 13th highest on record. About 19,000 flights were scratched. Atlantic Southeast Airlines, which flies as United Express and Delta Connection, had the highest cancellation rate of any airline. The airline grounded 9.3 percent of its flights in January. Delta and AirTran were next in line.

There were 46 canceled flights with tarmac delays of more than two hours in January, more than double a year earlier. The rate of canceled flights was up significantly from the 2.5 percent rate in January 2010, but rose only slightly from the 3.7 percent rate in December.

A major snowstorm days after Christmas caused widespread delays and left thousands of passengers stranded in airports. Storms in January wreaked havoc at airports in Chicago, Atlanta, New York and other cities in the East and Midwest. Cancellations spread across the country as planes that remained snowbound in the East weren't able to reach passengers as far off as Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The only flight that was stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours was a Delta flight from Atlanta to Honolulu. It sat on the ground for more about three and a half hours before it was canceled.

Hawaiian, Alaska and United Airlines had the best on-time rates in January. JetBlue had the worst, followed by regional carriers Atlantic Southeast and SkyWest. Overall U.S. airlines were on-time 76.3 percent of the time in January, up from 78.3 percent a year ago. Airlines did a better job getting passengers to their destinations on-time in January compared with December, though. January is one of the slowest months for air travel; December is one of the busiest.

Despite the on-time improvement from December to January, complaints to the government about airline service were up 13.5 percent. They were down 7.8 percent from January 2010.

The rate of mishandled baggage in January fell from both the month and the year before.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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