Are Airline Delays Getting Better?

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NEW YORK (MainStreet) – For the first time, domestic airlines went a whole month without stranding their passengers on the tarmac for more than three hours.

The latest edition of the Air Travel Consumer Report, which is put out monthly by the Department of Transportation and tracks various metrics of airline effectiveness, found that there wasn’t a single tarmac delay of three hours or more in October – the first time that has happened since the agency began gathering the data in October 2008.

What happened to bring about the change? In a word, regulation. In December 2009 the DOT came down with a new rule banning airlines from leaving passengers on the tarmac for three hours or more, fining them up to $27,500 per delayed passenger. The regulation, which went into effect in May, had an immediate impact. According to the agency, there have been only 12 three-hour delays from May to October of this year, compared with 546 such delays during the same period in 2009.

At the time, the airlines predicted that the new rule would lead to more cancellations of delayed flights. But official statistics paint a mixed picture. In October the cancellation rate among large airlines dropped slightly to 0.97% of flights, from 0.99% a year ago, but September’s numbers showed an increase in cancellations alongside a drop in delays.

Still, DOT statistics show that cancellations and delays tend to peak during the winter months, so the real test will come once the numbers for this winter come out. If the airlines find themselves contending with long delays from winter weather, we could see more airlines canceling flights to avoid paying hefty fines.

While the big tarmac delays have disappeared for now, that’s not to say that all planes are running on time. The airlines reported an 83.8% on-time arrival rate for the month – up from 77.3% a year ago, but a slight dip from September’s 85.1%. Leading the pack was Hawaiian Airlines, which boasted an on-time arrival rate of 95.4% for the month. Bringing up the rear, meanwhile, were JetBlue and Southwest, which despite scoring well in a recent Zagat survey arrived late to its destination more than 20% of the time.

Thinking of flying this winter? Check out our list of the top five hot spots for New Year’s travel.

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