CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If there is one thing that airlines despise, it is finishing last in on-time performance.

That's why American ( AMR) has been scrambling to improve on its 2008 results, when its on-time results were 19th out of 19 airlines tracked by the U.S. Transportation Department. It was also 16th in complaints and 11th in mishandled bags.

June was the low point, as just 58.8% of American flights were on time, marking the fifth consecutive month when the carrier was last or next to last.

"We were struggling," says Mark DuPont, vice president for airport services planning. "So after we made it through the summer, we started looking at a number of adjustments."

In mounting a systemwide improvement effort, American is seeking to follow the lead of US Airways ( LCC), which went from last among network carriers in 2007 to first in 2008. It is not unreasonable to think that United ( UAUA), second to last among network carriers in 2008, will be next to try.

For American, results so far have been positive. On-time performance climbed steadily from August to December, when American was third among all carriers and second among network carriers, as well as ninth in complaints and 10th in mishandled bags.

On an absolute basis, arrivals within 14 minutes of schedule were at 70.6% in August, 81.5% in September, 83.6% in October and 84.4% in November, before falling back to 70% in December due to weather. Most carriers are showing improvements in absolute terms, as the industry chops capacity.

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