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Nearly 30 percent of flights delayed in March

/ Source: The Associated Press

Nearly 30 percent of domestic flights were late or canceled in March, more bad news for an industry plagued with safety concerns and buckling under record fuel costs.

More than 28 percent of commercial flights in the U.S. arrived late, were canceled or diverted in March, according to Transportation Department data released Wednesday. It was the worst March on record and second-worst opening quarter for a year since comparable data began being collected in 1995.

Still, March's results were slightly better than February's when more than 31 percent of flights arrived late, were canceled or diverted.

One reason for the continued period of historically poor performance is that airlines are replacing big planes with smaller ones to fly with fewer empty seats. But that crowds the skies and gates, analysts say.

Weather also remains a problem. In March, more than 41 percent of late flights were delayed by weather, up from about 38 percent in the year-ago period.

AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, the largest U.S. carrier, had the worst March with only 62 percent of its flights arriving on time. Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time arrival rate at nearly 95 percent.

Reports of mishandled baggage improved in March to about 6.7 per 1,000 passengers from more than 7.7 reports in the same month last year. Passenger complaints also fell to 1,013 from 1,307 in the year-ago period.

But the industry is struggling to deal with jet fuel costs that have risen more than 60 percent in the last year, contributing to a handful of small airlines declaring bankruptcy, and two larger ones — Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines — announcing plans to combine.

Also in the last two months, UAL Corp.'s United Airlines, Southwest Airlines Co., American, Delta and others have grounded flights and inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of passengers amid unprecedented government scrutiny of maintenance issues after revelations of a too-cozy relationship between the industry and regulators.

Lawmakers and the White House already had been involved after last year's dismal performance. More than 26 percent of commercial flights in the U.S. arrived late or were canceled in 2007, the second worst showing on record, according to government data.