By David Koenig, AP Airlines Writer
DALLAS (AP) — U.S. airlines are doing better a better job of staying on schedule, according to the government.
The Transportation Department said Tuesday that the airlines averaged an 80% on-time arrival rate in March, better than February this year and better than March 2009.
Hawaiian Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Pinnacle Airlines had the best on-time ratings. JetBlue had the worst, followed by ExpressJet and American Airlines.
JetBlue spokeswoman Alison Croyle said the airline was hurt by its heavy concentration of flights in the crowded New York area and by runway work that reduced capacity at New York's JFK International Airport.
The Transportation Department said 25 flights in March were stuck on the tarmac for three hours or longer — and four were grounded at least four hours.
New rules that took effect in late April could subject airlines to big fines for holding passengers on a plane longer than three hours without giving them a chance to leave.
The biggest offender in March was SkyWest, with 10 delays of at least three hours. SkyWest operates regional flights for Delta and United. An American Airlines flight from San Diego to New York on March 13 was held on the tarmac for five hours.
The airlines reported that one in every 269 passengers had a bag lost, damaged, delayed or stolen in March. That was better than March 2009, when it happened to one in every 236 passengers.
Your chances increased, however, for getting kicked off a flight even though you held a confirmed reservation because the airline sold too many tickets. For the first three months of this year, the airlines bumped 23,380 passengers, or 1.73 for every 10,000 travelers. That rate is more than one-fourth higher than in the first quarter of 2009.
Southwest carries the most U.S. passengers and bumped the highest number of passengers, although four airlines had higher rates: ExpressJet, Continental, US Airways and — last by a wide margin — American Eagle, the regional affiliate of American Airlines.
The industry's on-time rate for March beat February's mark of 74.6% and the 78.4% rating in March 2009.
The seven most frequently delayed flights were all operated by Southwest Airlines, according to the Transportation Department. One flight from Baltimore to New York's LaGuardia Airport was late every time.
Southwest did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Transportation Department said the leading causes of delays were aircraft arriving late from their last flight, system delays — including weather, heavy traffic and air traffic control issues — and factors within the airline's control such as maintenance and crew schedules.
Over the past two years, airlines eliminated hundreds of flights as fuel costs soared and fewer people traveled. That's made the skies less crowded, helping planes stay on schedule.
In addition, airlines have stretched the scheduled length of many flights, making it easier to arrive on time even if the plane takes off late. The Transportation Department counts a flight as on-time if it's within 15 minutes of the airline's schedule.
But the airlines also face new obstacles. One of the four runways at New York's JFK will be closed for reconstruction at least through June, and the Transportation Department noted that the work could make flight delays worse for all carriers operating at JFK and other airports.
The airlines also blame the nation's aging air traffic control system. JetBlue's Croyle said modernizing the system is the best long-term solution to congestion in the Northeast.
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