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U.S. airline delays off to a poor start in 2008

/ Source: The Associated Press

Last year was among the worst for airline delays and 2008 did not start any better, according to government data released Tuesday.

More than a quarter of commercial flights in the U.S. arrived late, were canceled or diverted in January, up slightly from the same month last year, the Transportation Department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics' data show. The results were an improvement from December — usually a busier month for leisure travelers — when nearly 36 percent of flights by the nation's 20 largest carriers were delayed, diverted or canceled.

The month-to-month improvement did little to soothe agitated passengers as customer complaints rose, compared with December and last January.

A quarter of domestic flights failed to arrive on time in 2007 — the industry's second poorest performance on record — and analysts say things are likely to get worse as rising passenger demand and an industry preference for smaller planes magnifies congestion in the skies and on runways.

Airlines continue to replace larger aircraft with smaller ones in an effort to maximize profit margins by flying with fewer empty seats.

Still, weather is normally the prime culprit for late flights and that was true in January when it caused nearly 44 percent of delays, up from about 42 percent in the same month last year.

UAL Corp.'s United Airlines had the worst on-time arrival rate in January at 62 percent, followed by SkyWest Inc. at 65 percent and American Eagle at close to 66 percent.

President Bush has demanded action to avoid another summer of record delays; airlines, airport operators, Congress and the administration have failed to agree on what that action should be.

Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration has been locked in a contract dispute with the union representing air traffic controllers since 2006. The agency insists staffing has no impact on flight delays, but the union contends congestion problems will worsen unless the government hires more air traffic controllers and pays them better.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters in January said congested airports can charge landing fees based on the time flights land and traffic volume to encourage carriers to spread operations more evenly throughout the day. But the government last month delayed that plan until at least April following stiff resistance from airlines.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs John F. Kennedy International Airport, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty, also has said that policy was a minor fix for a major problem.

On-time arrival rates in January at LaGuardia and Newark were among the worst in the country, and aviation officials say delays in the New York City-area cascade throughout the system and cause three-quarters of all flight delays.

Under another federal plan, flight caps at JFK will begin on March 15 with that airport limited to about 80 flights per hour at peak times, down from about 100 that had been scheduled last summer. Similar caps, which already exist at LaGuardia, also will go into effect at Newark with the exact number still being negotiated, a Transportation Department spokesman said Tuesday.

The Air Transport Association, which represents the nation's largest airlines, and the Port Authority prefer flight-path changes and improvements aimed at increasing the flight capacity at airports.

The government report said roughly 28 percent of commercial flights in the U.S. arrived late, were canceled or diverted in January, up from about 27 percent in the same month last year. In December, nearly 36 percent of flights were canceled, delayed or diverted.

There were 1,174 complaints in January, up from 849 in December.

Not all airlines performed poorly in January. Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time arrival rate at 94.1 percent, followed by Aloha Airlines at 93.2 percent and US Airways at 79.5 percent.

To further help curb delays, the airlines and the FAA are pressing for a new $15 billion satellite-based air traffic control system, dubbed NextGen. But that system that will take nearly 20 years to complete to improve operations.