Transportation Department data appears to contradict the agency's own finding earlier this week that the nation's largest airline recently improved the on-time performance of chronically delayed flights.
American Airlines operated two flights that arrived late at least 70 percent of the time throughout the first nine months of this year, according to data analyzed by The Associated Press. Under a government plan, the airline faced a total of $50,000 in fines.
The Transportation Department identified dozens of chronically delayed flights earlier this year and said carriers that did not improve in the third quarter would face fines of up to $25,000 per violation.
On Monday, Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said the six airlines operating 25 chronically delayed flights in the first half of 2007 improved their performance in the third quarter, thereby avoiding any fines. She touted the turnaround as much-needed good news in a year when the airline industry struggles with record delays.
But two American Airlines flights — one from New Jersey's Newark Liberty International Airport to Chicago's O'Hare International and another from Miami International to John F. Kennedy International in New York — arrived at least 15 minutes late more than 70 percent of the time in each of the first three quarters of 2007, according to Transportation Department data obtained by The Associated Press.
The Newark-Chicago flight arrived late nearly 86 percent of the time in the first quarter, more than 78 percent of the time in the second and more than 74 percent in the July-September quarter. The Miami-New York flight arrived late more than 72 percent of the time in the first quarter, more than 85 percent in the April-June quarter, and nearly 85 percent of the time in the third quarter.
But American was not fined because the government considered both flights to have changed during the course of the year under criteria that required scheduled departures be within 15 minutes of each other in all three quarters, said Sam Podbersky, the Transportation Department's assistant general counsel for aviation enforcement.
The departure time of the Newark-Chicago flight was moved up by 50 minutes in the second and third quarters compared with the first, and the Miami-New York flight's scheduled departure was pushed back by 20 minutes. Because of that, neither flight was even among the 25 the government considered chronically late in the first half of the year.
"American Airlines did not have any flights that were chronically delayed for the first three quarters of 2007, and neither has the DOT Enforcement Office informed us that we did," company spokesman Tim Wagner wrote in an e-mail Thursday.
Carriers often move flights around to avoid delays from staffing problems, sparse airport gate resources and air traffic control jams. But for American to have done it simply to avoid a government fine, "I'd be surprised if they were that clever or that devious," said Bob Harrell of New York-based travel and aviation consulting firm Harrell Associates.
Still, the Transportation Department's investigation continues and the government will extend the time limit for scheduled departures to within 30 minutes of each other in the next calendar year, officials said.
"Adjusting operations to look for a less crowded time to take off is exactly what we want the airlines to do," said Transportation Department spokesman Brian Turmail. "This is the beginning of the process, not the end."
The airline industry's on-time performance through October was the second worst on record since comparable data began being collected in 1995, the Transportation Department said this week. About 24 percent of flights arrived late in the first 10 months of the year.
The government has proposed alleviating delays by reducing JFK's hourly flight limit by 20 percent. But the airline industry's trade group and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs JFK, both prefer flight-path changes and improvements aimed at increasing the airport's capacity.
The other five airlines that operated chronically delayed flights in the first half of the year but improved performance in the third quarter to avoid fines were: Northwest Airlines Corp., ExpressJet Holdings Inc., US Airways Group Inc., Continental Airlines Inc. and JetBlue Airways Corp., according to Transportation Department data.
The department last month fined Delta Air Lines Inc. $115,000 for failing to respond to customer requests for on-time arrival data of its flights, including those operated by Comair, Atlantic Southeast Airlines and SkyWest Airlines.
The 20 largest passenger carriers report on-time performance to the government and must provide on-time arrival statistics when requested by passengers. The Transportation Department last month said its enforcement office was continuing to investigate other carriers after imposing fines in October for similar violations of $50,000 on Hawaiian Holdings Inc.'s Hawaiian Airlines and $30,000 on JetBlue Airways Corp.