Along with the thrill of flight comes the agony of delays and lost baggage.

The

Department of Transportation

knows this, and it reports on these and other complaints each month, each quarter and each year to keep passengers informed about the relative performance of the 10 largest U.S. airlines.

Here are the 1998 winners and losers among those airlines, according to the recently released DOT Air Travel Consumer report, available on the DOT

Web site.

First, about those delays:

"On-time" to the DOT means an arrival that is less than 15 minutes after the scheduled arrival time or a departure less than 15 minutes after scheduled departure time. Canceled and diverted flights are not considered in calculating on-time rankings.

By "enplanements," the DOT means each time a passenger takes a flight.

Significant things to note? While the DOT neglected to post the rankings from last year, we can tell you this:

Southwest Airlines

(LUV) - Get Report

once again took top on-time honors. It's not much of a surprise: In the past five years, Southwest has taken the top spot more often than not.

The big upside surprise for 1998 was

Delta Air Lines'

(DAL) - Get Report

move up to the third spot for the year. CFO Warren Jenson told us earlier this year that Delta was going to improve its on-time performance this year, and, by golly, it did. Over the past five years, Delta was consistently at the bottom of the on-time rankings.

On the downside, just a quick note: As bad as

Northwest Airlines'

(NWAC)

on-time performance was last year,

America West's

(AWA)

was even worse. The airline's abysmal on-time performance record was on a downward trend throughout 1998.

Getting All of You There

Which airline is least likely to lose your baggage? (Considering that more and more of our bags are now being forced into the cargo holds because of more stringent carry-on policies being implemented by the airlines, this is no small matter to most travelers.)

The envelope, please ...

It seems that while America West can't seem to fly you to your destination on time as often as its rivals, at least the chances of having your bag there when you do arrive are higher than with any other airline.

The other surprise here is the rather noticeable drop in performance for Southwest Airlines. The airline dropped to sixth last year from third in 1997. Herb, what's the deal?

As for the two airlines at the bottom of the heap?

Alaska Airlines

(ALK) - Get Report

and

UAL's United Airlines

(UAL) - Get Report

regularly duke it out for the worst baggage performance month after month. The trends have been consistent all year long. I've often wondered just what they do with baggage up there in Alaska to generate the same level of complaints as mighty United. Sledding?

Baggage-related complaints were up 10% in 1998 from 1997.

Keeping You Happy

Which airline generated the fewest passenger complaints unrelated to baggage?

Drum roll ...

Not a whole lot to note here, actually, as we had very little change at the top of the rankings. Southwest, Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines led the majors last year, and they led the majors in 1997 with the fewest passenger complaints.

The biggest decline for a major airline was posted by

TWA

(TWA)

, which dropped to No. 8 last year from No. 6 in 1997, and the biggest improvement was made by

AMR's American Airlines

(AMR)

, which moved to No. 6 last year from No. 8 in 1997.

It is also interesting to point out the large gap between the best and the worst. To put Northwest's last-place performance in perspective, the airline received almost nine times the number of passenger complaints per 100,000 passenger boardings that Southwest received in 1998.

Sen. Ernest F. "Fritz" Hollings (D., S.C.) is not surprised at the rise in the number of complaints against Northwest. In testimony this week in regard to a passenger-rights bill being drafted, the senator blasted Northwest in reference to its December debacle in Detroit, saying, "They hold their planes on the runway for eight hours and give them

passengers a paper cup to wee-wee in -- it's outrageous!"

The most telling trend from the 1998 DOT report is the overall significant rise in the total number of passenger complaints: They were up about 26% last year from 1997. This represents the highest rate of complaints filed since 1991.

Passengers clearly are not enamored with those Dixie cups or departure delays -- much less with those missing bags that we suspect are being used as sleds somewhere in Alaska.

Holly Hegeman, based in Dallas, pilots the Wing Tips and Traveling With Wings columns for TheStreet.com. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. You can usually find Hegeman, publisher of PlaneBusiness Banter, buzzing around her airline industry Web site, at www.planebusiness.com.