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Airlines improve performance ahead of fines

NEW YORK — The government said yesterday that airlines virtually wiped out three-hour tarmac delays in April before huge fines for holding passengers on the runway went into effect.

Airlines faced fines up to $27,500 per passenger for tarmac delays of more than three hours as of April 29.

Carriers improved their overall on-time performance as well. The 18 airlines that report statistics to the Transportation Department were on-time 85.3 percent of the time in April, compared with a rate of 79.1 percent a year earlier and 80 percent in March. Most delays were caused by late-arriving aircraft and aviation system delays, which include bad weather, heavy traffic or airport and air traffic system slowdowns.

U.S. Airways posted the best on-time rate among major mainline carriers. It was third in the overall rankings behind Hawaiian and Alaska Airlines. American Airlines reported the worst on-time rate of big U.S. carriers. Its sister carrier, regional airline American Eagle, was last among all airlines reporting.

Only four planes were stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours, down from 25 in March and 81 in April 2009. One flight, an American Airlines jet from Atlanta to Miami, was stuck for more than four hours.

In April, there were long stretches when most of the nation was free of severe weather, according to the National Weather Service. Good weather often helps airlines avoid delays. Improvements in the efficient use of New York airspace likely also helped more flights takeoff and land on-time. About a third of all air traffic in the U.S. goes through the New York area, and delays here can ripple across the country.

The on-time rate for New York’s LaGuardia airport rose to 84.2 percent from 67.4 percent the month before. At JFK, the on-time rate improved to 83.5 percent from 67.3 percent the month before, despite the airport’s longest runway being shutdown for repairs.

Airlines didn’t cancel more flights in April to avoid tarmac delays. DOT said 3,637 flights were canceled during the month out of a total 529,330 — about half the rate in March or in April 2009. Continental grounded the fewest flights in April — just 11 out of 19,460. SkyWest Airlines canceled the most.

Airlines also did a better job of getting bags to their destinations. U.S. carriers had a mishandled baggage rate of 2.89 per 1,000 passengers in April, better than 3.89 in April a year ago and 3.72 in March.

Still, some passengers were not satisfied. DOT received 878 complaints about airline service from consumers in April, up from 782 in April 2009 but fewer complaints than in March.

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