Biggest airlines’ on-time rate slips in July

NEW YORK — U.S. airlines were late more often in July than a year earlier, but there were only three planes stuck for more than three hours, the government said Monday.

Although there were more late flights in July, the on-time rate for the country’s biggest airlines in the first seven months of this year was the third best in 16 years.

The nation’s largest airlines operated 76.7 percent of flights on time in July, down from 77.6 percent in July 2009. The on-time rate in July was better than the month before, as incidents of severe weather that delayed planes declined from June to July. The airlines canceled more flights than a year ago, but there were fewer cancellations in July than in June.

The best at getting customers to their destinations on-time was Hawaiian Airlines, which traditionally holds the top spot. Hawaiian was followed by Alaska Airlines and United Airlines, operated by parent company UAL Corp. The airline with the worst on-time rate was ExpressJet Airlines, which operates regional flights for United and Continental. Comair, Delta’s regional unit, and Delta’s main operations were only slightly better.

Passenger complaints to the DOT soared in July from a year ago, up 32.3 percent to 1,094. Some of the spike can be attributed to a recent option added to the DOT website that allows travelers to e-mail complaints about airlines. Most of the complaints in July were about problems with cancellations and delays. Gripes were down about 23 percent from June.

Airlines got more bags where they were supposed to go in July compared to a year earlier, but the mishandled baggage rate was up from June.

Only three planes were stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours in July, compared with 161 a year earlier. All three were American Eagle flights leaving Chicago’s O’Hare on July 23, a day when a severe thunderstorm in the area kept many planes sitting on runways. All three flights went back to the gate and were canceled.

Three flights also were stuck for more than three hours in June, all on the same day — June 18 — at O’Hare when thunderstorms and strong winds battered the area. Weather accounts for a large portion of air traffic delays.

In May, the first month a new DOT rule took effect threatening hefty fines for tarmac delays of three hours or more, DOT originally said that five planes were stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours. After an investigation DOT said four of the five flights — all operated by United — didn’t count as violations because passengers were given a chance to get off the plane. That leaves one possible violation in May, a flight run by Delta.

DOT still hasn’t said whether it will fine airlines that violated the three-hour limit. Although the government rarely imposes maximum fines, the rule calls for penalties as high as $27,500 per passenger.