Last year airlines turned in their best on-time performance since 2003. They were helped by fewer flights, a little schedule padding and a greater focus on improving their operations.
The Transportation Department said on Friday that airlines averaged a 79.5 percent on-time arrival rate in 2009. Flights count as on-time if they arrive less than 15 minutes late.
Among the largest carriers, Southwest Airlines had the best record, with 83 percent of its flights on time. United was tops among the big traditional carriers, with 81 percent of flights on-time.
Hawaiian Airlines, which operates a fraction of the flights of the big carriers, was first overall.
Airlines struggled in December, though, as winter storms pushed down the on-time rate to 72 percent. The DOT tracks on-time arrivals for flights between U.S. airports. International flights don't count.
Airlines have increasingly padded their schedules for flights to congested airports to improve the chance of arriving on time. They say the extra time accounts for unpredictable delays, especially at the three busy New York-area airports, which finished in the bottom third of the big U.S. airports for on-time departures in 2009.
United finished 2008 with the second-worst on-time record among the big airlines, just ahead of American. To turn that around, United offered workers bonuses for first- or second-place monthly finishes, built more time into its schedules and added spare planes, President John Tague said on Friday. He said United's on-time improvement was greater than the amount of time it added to its schedule.
He credited United workers with the improvement. The bonuses added up to $825 per worker for 2009.
Still, only Delta had a higher rate of customer complaints among the big carriers, although United had fewer complaints than in 2008. Tague said the on-time improvement is leading to higher customer satisfaction levels.
United is raising the monthly bonuses to $130 per month for a first-place finish. Pilots will stop getting the bonus in six months, though, because they objected to a change in the way the company calculates the bonus.
The DOT also said there were 3.9 reports of mishandled baggage per 1,000 passengers last year, the lowest rate since 2004. AirTran Airways had the best baggage record, while Delta Air Lines Inc. — not counting Delta's Northwest unit, which reported separately — was worst among the big international carriers.
The DOT noted 35 tarmac delays that lasted longer than three hours in December, including 10 by American Airlines and nine more by its regional affiliate, American Eagle.