CHICAGO (

TheStreet

) -- The first thing that

United

( UAUA) wants to say about finishing first among network carriers in 2009 on-time performance is this: It's not just the new runway.

Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, United's busiest hub, opened a

fifth runway in November 2008. During the next 11 months, O'Hare moved from the nation's most delay-prone major airport, ranking 31st out of 31 with 70% of departures on time, to the 20th most delayed airport with a 78% on-time performance.

"The new runway didn't hurt us, but it alone would not have allowed us to move the way we did," said JoeKolshak, United senior vice president of operations. United's on-time arrival ranking - or flights arriving within 14 minutes of their scheduled time -- was highest among the five network carriers in 2009, up from fifth of six in 2008. Among the 19 largest carriers, United ranked sixth in 2009, up from 17th in 2008. The U.S. Department of Transportation released full-year 2009 results on Friday.

Despite its vast improvement, United only narrowly beat out

US Airways

(LCC)

for first place. US Airways finished second among network carriers and seventh overall. US Airways flights arrived on time 80.9% of the time, while United flights were on time 81% of the time.

While not directly reflected on the bottom line, on-time performance positions an airline to be profitable, largely by minimizing delay-related costs such as passenger reaccommodations, delayed bag delivery, added staffing cost and lost customers.

Kolshak noted that Chicago accounts for just 25% of United's sprawling route system. In fact, no single cure-all can so dramatically improve an airline's on-time performance. Rather, United made a series of adjustments, some seemingly minor, that together drove improved on-time performance.

For example, in the summer, as bag fees spurred passengers to carry bags onto planes, the carrier revised its procedures for gate-checking bags. The major change was that gate agents would keep a closer eye on the number of passengers boarding with bags, and at an appropriate time in the boarding process, would begin to require that the bags be checked and loaded into the cargo bins.

That way, passengers did not carry bags onto the plane only to find that the overhead bins were full, a revelation that generally delays boarding because it forces a search for alternative sites that often concludes with carrying the bags back to the front of the plane for a gate check. Thousands of times each day, such activities delay departures.

United also restructured its ramp procedures as planes arrive at the gate. "We choreographed the process," Kolchak said, devising a ground activity checklist for arrivals, just as pilots use a checklist for departures. Now, once planes reach the gate, the pilot sets the brakes, the blocks are set up, the belt-loaders are moved to the plane and these steps, along with many others, take place according to a carefully-designed, pre-established sequence that saves time and also minimizes accidents. One positive result has been a 55% decline in ground damage to aircraft during the year, resulted in savings of $11 million.

A United Airlines jet prepares to land at O'Hare International Airport on a runway.

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United also introduced a program to reward employees for on-time performance. The program paid out $32 million during the year, as employees collected bonuses in 10 of 12 months. The money, Kolchak said, was well-spent, because nothing costs more than a delay-prone operation. For most airline employees, ensuring safe, on-time arrivals is the key measure of their work. "Employees want to win," Kolchak said. "Nobody wants to be on a losing team."

In other 2009 metrics, United's percentage of departures to zero, or departures that were exactly on time, increased by 12 points. (DOT measures arrivals within 14 minutes of schedule.). United also had 26% fewer delays in 2009 than in 2008. United did increase some "block" or flight times, but Kolchak noted that such increases are no panacea because "If you add block due to variability, you can't control that -- and you need reliable schedules."

Much like United, US Airways implemented an

improvement program

after finishing near the bottom of the industry in 2007.

"In 2008, we were number one in on-time performance among the Big Five network carriers, so we had set the bar pretty high," said a recent US Airways employee newsletter. "That trend continued in 2009. Through November, we ranked number one in on-time arrivals against the Big Five and led the industry in on-time departures." Spokeswoman Michelle Mohr said the carrier's December performance was diminished by winter storms and flooding at Washington's Reagan National Airport.

Overall,

Hawaiian

(HA) - Get Report

led all carriers in on-time performance during 2009, with a 92.1% on-time record, while

Southwest

(LUV) - Get Report

was second at 83%. Last was

Comair

at 69%, while

Atlantic Southeast

was 18th at 71.2%.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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