Flight delays improve in May, but what about summer?

The government's latest report on airline flight delays and cancelations and other airline consumer mishaps is out. The good news is that flight delays in May improved over April and May of 2007, with about 79 percent of flights flown by the 19 U.S. carriers tracked arriving on time. Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time record (about 89 percent), followed by small regional carrier Pinnacle (about 86 percent) and AirTran (about 85 percent). Delta had the best record of all the major airlines (about 84 percent), and American had the worst overall numbers (67 percent), making May the fourth month in a row American or an American subsidiary came in dead last. Traveler darling Southwest finished in the middle of the pack (about 81 percent) but actually recorded the most delayed flight of the month, Southwest 2709 from Houston Hobby to San Diego, which was late 100 percent of time, arriving 50 minutes tardy on average.

For flight cancelation, American Eagle reported the highest incidence (about 3 percent), followed by Mesa (2.2 percent), and American (2.1 percent). Frontier canceled the fewest flights on average (0.1 percent), and JetBlue had the second best record (0.2 percent). As for mishandled baggage, American Eagle again had the worst record, losing about nine bags for every 1,000 passengers, while AirTran did the best job of handling luggage, losing only about three bags per each 1,000 passengers. Overall, lost baggage reports were down on average compared to the previous May.

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The bad news is that, according to FlightStats.com, a non-governmental website that tracks flight information, delays and cancelations are a significant problem this summer, as they were last summer. FlightsStats.com reports that 30 percent of all June flights were delayed or canceled, and at certain highly congested airports like New York LaGuardia, almost 50 percent of flights did not arrive on time. Scott McCarthy of the Wall Street Journal interviewed a variety of airline executives about this problem, and most cited bad weather (like the storms in the Midwest) and congestion at hubs as major contributing factors. McCarthy also speculated that staffing cuts and slowing down jets to conserve fuel may have added to the delays.

For months we've been reporting on airline capacity cuts, which should in theory reduce delays by cutting down on the number of planes in the sky. However, many of those cuts won't start to take effect until the fall. Also, while consumers are starting to pull back on booking airfare, many passengers paid for their summer vacation flights when prices were lower and thus will still be flying. So I suspect we'll see full planes through the summer months. If you flying during this time, it's still important to be prepared for trouble: Pack light if you can, familiarize yourself with connecting airports, have a charged cell phone and airline number ready in the event of a problem, and know the rules of bumping.

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