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Best and worst airlines for delays

The airlines most — and least — likely to get you to your holiday destination on time.
Image: Hawaiian Airlines
The top-ranked winner on last year’s list (and the year before that), Hawaiian Air wasn’t content to rest on its laurels in 2010. Despite being well ahead of the pack, the airline still pushed its performance rate even higher this year, to 92 percent from 89.5 percent.Bryan Correira
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We’ve all heard of, or even experienced, the missed family gatherings and crucial business meetings, the unhappily shortened vacations and honeymoons, and the unwelcome hours—and dollars—spent while stuck in airport terminals. Flights that don’t arrive and depart on time can, quite simply, ruin even the best-planned trip.

That’s why it makes sense to know, before you make your holiday travel plans, which airlines have a good track record for on-time flights—and which are most likely to leave you hanging.

The best and worst airlines for delays can vary quite a bit from year to year. So, as we do annually, Travel + Leisure consulted the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, which monitors the percentage of on-time arrivals for major U.S. airlines. This time, we checked out the 12-month period ending in June 2010—and found some big surprises.

First, the good news: the overall on-time performance for the 18 airlines tracked jumped almost 4% in the past year—flights arrived on time 79.7% of the time, up from 76.1% in 2009. That means that just about all the carriers surveyed (even those at the bottom of the list) experienced some improvement in their rate of on-time flights.

Within the rankings on our best-and-worst list, however, there were some big shifts this year. Several of last year’s high achievers, including Pinnacle and AirTran, experienced increased delay rates that were significant enough to send them into free fall in the rankings. Other airlines, like Continental and United, made up the difference by radically reducing their number of delays, and nabbing the top-ranked spots from their competitors.

The reasons for such dramatic changes can be harder to ascertain than the performance rates themselves. But the causes reported for delays by the airlines surveyed (also collected by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics) cite late-arriving connecting flights, air-traffic-control issues, airplane maintenance or repair, and bad weather as the most frequent problems. Year to year, depending on their routes, hubs, personnel, and equipment, certain airlines may experience a bigger share of those troubles.

For us travelers, however, the only concern on our minds as the holidays approach is likely to be “What airline is going to get me to Grandma’s house in time for Thanksgiving dinner?” Read our list and find out.