WASHINGTON — The Transportation Department, continuing a campaign aimed at improving airline service, reported Wednesday that flight delays on major airlines declined in October but said that one in five flights still arrived at least 15 minutes late.
The 20% delay rate was a slight improvement over September's 23% figure. However, a separate report by the Federal Aviation Administration covering the same period showed a much more rapid decline in delays ordered by air traffic controllers because of bad weather or crowded skies.
Because the overall rate declined much less sharply than the FAA figures, senior department officials said privately, the report suggests no more than minor improvement in airline service. "It clearly indicates that factors under the control of the airlines account for a significant portion of delays," one official said.
The FAA reported that controller-ordered delays dropped sharply, to 19,493 from 26,598 during the month. Thus, the overall delay decrease could have been caused in large part by better flying weather in October or the simple fact that it was a much less busy travel period, a senior department official said.
American Airlines, which recorded an 86% on-time performance in October, ranked highest among the 14 major airlines now required by the department to disclose their rates of flight delay. The worst was Pacific Southwest Airlines, with only 60% of its flights on time.
In addition to PSA, whose delay rate increased to 40% from 30%, only Alaska Airways reported increased delays, to 30% from 25%. The sharpest improvement in performance came from USAir, whose delays dropped to 23% from 33%.
A spokesman for PSA, Bill Hastings, said the airline's worst-in-the-nation showing is "certainly not acceptable to us and we're looking for ways we can improve it." He blamed some of the delays on crowded conditions at the West Coast airports that PSA serves.
Flights arrived and departed late more often at the international airports in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego than at any other major airports in the country, the department survey showed.
The delay rate at San Francisco was by far the worst among the 27 major airports covered in the survey, with about 46% of its arriving flights being delayed by 15 minutes or more during the month. About 35% of arrivals were delayed in Los Angeles; in San Diego, the figure was 30%.
Of the 15 regularly scheduled airline flights that arrived late most often nationwide in October, seven operated between two West Coast airports, including PSA flights from San Francisco to Orange County, San Diego and Seattle, which were late 97% of the time.
A spokesman for San Francisco International Airport, Ron Wilson, said construction on two main runways for 11 days in October had created "some horrendous delays. We freely admit that and we'll take the blame for that. I just wish the airlines would admit to some of the blame too."
Lost Baggage Data
In major East Coast airports, flight delays have declined sharply since last spring, when the FAA adopted a plan that expands the number of "lanes" in which pilots are permitted to fly. The FAA is considering a similar plan on the West Coast, but a spokesman said Wednesday that it will not be instituted in the near future.
The department report also showed that reports of mishandled baggage were filed far more often by passengers traveling on Northwest and United than on any other airline, each with more than 10 reports per 1,000 passengers. The fewest reports were filed by passengers traveling on Pan American, Eastern and PSA, all of which operate many shuttle flights that carry little baggage.
The report showed that the number of passengers denied boarding dropped during the third quarter of this year to 3.63 per 10,000 boardings, compared to a 4.39 rate for the first nine months of the year.
Overall, consumer complaints against the airline industry continued to decline, dropping by more than 18% from October to November.
Across the country, the report showed, flight delays were worst in the middle of the day and the early evening, the peak hours when most passengers want to fly and airlines have scheduled flights to accommodate them.
In an attempt to reduce such delays, Transportation Department and FAA officials this summer persuaded many airlines to alter their schedules to make takeoff and landing times more realistic.
The report issued Wednesday, the second in a series of surveys compiling data supplied by the airlines, provides consumers with information enabling them to monitor airline compliance with those schedules and is expected by Reagan Administration officials to improve competition among airlines.
To avoid putting pressure on airlines to fly unsafe planes, neither the Transportation Department nor the FAA includes in their surveys flights delayed by mechanical problems.