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U.S. airlines improved on-time rates in July

NEW YORK — U.S. airlines curbed long delays in July and improved their overall on-time rates compared with both a month and year earlier, the Department of Transportation said Monday.

Only one plane got stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours in July — a Continental flight from Miami to Newark, N.J. It was diverted to Philadelphia due to bad weather and sat there for nearly 3½  hours. It arrived at Newark almost six hours late.

Long delays had strayed into double-digits in May and June after nearly disappearing in April 2010, when the agency put into effect a rule threatening fines for these delays. No airline has been fined.

The nation’s 16 biggest airlines reported an overall on-time rate of 77.8 percent in July, up from 76.7 percent a year earlier and 76.9 percent in June. Hawaiian and Alaska clinched the top spots. Southwest, which carries more passengers than any other airline, came in third. The worst on-time rates were at regional airlines Atlantic Southeast and ExpressJet, which run some flights for major carriers.

The airlines’ on-time rates may have improved in part because they cancelled more flights. Cancellations were up from last July but lower than in June, a month of more traffic and severe weather.

And although airlines improved at getting passengers where they were headed on time, they lost or damaged more bags. U.S. airlines reported a mishandled baggage rate of 3.71 per 1,000 passengers in July, up slightly from both June 2011 and July 2010.

Complaints from consumers to the government about airline service also jumped. In July, complaints rose 17.1 percent from a year earlier and 14 percent from June.