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DOT reports improved delay, baggage numbers

The numbers in the DOT's most recent Air Travel Consumer Report are simple enough: Nationwide, 71.6 percent of all flights arrived on time in March up from 68.6 percent in February but down from 73.3 in March 2007. Bags were lost or "mishandled" at a rate of 6.66 per 1,000 pieces, better than last March's 7.74 but worse than this February's 6.39. The rate for the first quarter of this year is 6.81, a marked improvement over the 8.05 rate during the same time last year.

OK, you might say, but what does that all mean? Henry Harteveldt, principal travel analyst at Forrester Research, tells the Boston Globe that "The fact that airlines are ... losing less luggage reflects the fact that there are fewer people traveling and airlines are not quite as stretched out as they were a year ago." Does that mean the airlines just got lucky in March? Not quite, Harteveldt continues, claiming that while the airlines have a ways to go, they're still making strides on their own.

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However, in this era of skyrocketing fares and an ever-growing list of new fees, shouldn't travelers expect the carriers to improve their service? According to that same Boston Globe article, on-time performance for the first quarter of this year was the worst in 12 years, despite March's uptick. So while higher fares and other cost-cutting measures should give airlines the resources they need to serve their customers better, the reality is we're not there yet.

My guess is the numbers released by the DOT each month will receive more and more scrutiny as the fees and fare hikes pile up. My hope, then, is that those numbers keep heading in the right direction.

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