Washington (AP) - Last year was among the worst for airline delays and 2008 did not start any better, according to government data released Tuesday. Nearly one-third of commercial flights in the U.S. arrived late or were canceled in January, up slightly from the same month last year, the Transportation Department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics' data show. The results were an improvement from December -- usually a busier month for leisure travelers -- when almost 40 percent of flights by the nation's 20 largest carriers were delayed or canceled.
The month-to-month improvement did little to soothe agitated passengers as customer complaints rose, compared with December and last January. A quarter of domestic flights failed to arrive on time in 2007 -- the industry's second poorest performance on record -- and analysts say things are likely to get worse as rising passenger demand and an industry preference for smaller planes magnifies congestion in the skies and on runways.
Airlines continue to replace larger aircraft with smaller ones in an effort to maximize profit margins by flying with fewer empty seats. Still, weather is normally the prime culprit for late flights and that was true in January when it caused nearly 44 percent of delays, up from about 42 percent in the same month last year. UAL Corp.'s United Airlines had the worst on-time arrival rate in January at 62 percent, followed by SkyWest Inc. at 65 percent and American Eagle at close to 66 percent. The government report said roughly 31 percent of commercial flights in the U.S. arrived late or were canceled in January, up from more than 29 percent in the same month last year. In December, more than 39 percent of flights were canceled or delayed. There were 1,174 complaints in January, up from 849 in December.
Not all airlines performed poorly in January. Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time arrival rate at 94.1 percent, followed by Aloha Airlines at 93.2 percent and US Airways at 79.5 percent. To further help curb delays, the airlines and the FAA are pressing for a new $15 billion satellite-based air traffic control system, dubbed NextGen. But that system that will take nearly 20 years to complete to improve operations.