WASHINGTON — Defying expectations, flight delays and consumer complaints among the nation's 14 major airlines soared in the most recent reporting period, Transportation Department officials said Monday.
With the rate of delayed flights climbing to almost 35% in December from less than 20% in October, government and industry officials blamed the disappointing record during the last month of 1987 on bad weather that they say severely affected operations at some of the country's main air terminals. A holiday surge in air travel was also cited for the poor showing.
"Under the circumstances, it's not surprising that flight delays increased," Transportation Secretary James H. Burnley IV said. He noted that Chicago's O'Hare Airport, for instance, was hit with 13 days of bad weather in December, slowing 2,363 flights.
When Transportation Department officials first began requiring the monthly disclosure of flight information five months ago, they predicted that the information would spark competition among the airlines that, in turn, would cut down on delays, mishandled baggage and other travelers' travails.
But Monday's numbers told a different story.
- Overall, 33.6% of the major airlines' flights arrived at least 15 minutes late in December, up from 24% in November and 19.7% in October. Pan American World Airways, with 22.7% of its flights delayed, unseated American Airlines as the most reliable carrier. Pacific Southwest was last with 42.4% of its flights late.
- California's major airports--in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco--have all dropped sharply in on-time arrivals since September, remaining near the bottom nationally. San Francisco International, with 58.2% of the flights leaving the terminal late, was last among the 27 national airports surveyed in December; Los Angeles International was third from the bottom at 46.9%.
- Consumer complaints--which were reported for January--on such matters as baggage handling, customer service and refunds were also on the rise, climbing to 3,610 from 3,125 in December. Continental, Eastern and Northwest airlines received the most complaints among the major airlines.
Industry analysts cautioned that the rise in complaints may reflect an increased awareness by consumers of the Transportation Department's new disclosure policy, rather than a worsening of customer service.
Transportation Department officials were reluctant to interpret the downward trend in on-time flights and consumer satisfaction in light of earlier hopes that the new policy would help solve such problems.
"This is definitely not a good report," department spokesman Bill Mosley said, "but it's hard to say what it means at this point. So few reports have come out that it's really too early to say where this will lead."
Secretary Burnley cited "unavoidable causes" behind the recent increase in delays but also said he is "concerned that the airlines may not be taking sufficient steps to publish realistic schedules." He promised tighter monitoring of scheduling violations.
Tim Neale, spokesman for the American Transport Assn., the industry's leading trade group, said more accurate scheduling alone will not cut delays. "The problem is that we're trying to push a tremendous increase in airline traffic through a system that hasn't really expanded since deregulation" a decade ago, he said.
Echoing Neale's analysis was Virginia Black, community relations director at Los Angeles International. Noting the airport's poor showing in the monthly delay rankings, she said: "LAX seems to absorb the major growth (in traffic demand) because of limits on the other area airports, but we're reaching a limit ourselves."
PERFORMANCE BY CARRIER Overall percentage of flights arriving on time during December.
Pan American 77.3%
America West 76.4%
Pacific Southwest 57.6% Source: Department of Transportation
ON-TIME FLIGHTS AT LAX Percentage of on-time flights at L.A. International Airport in December:
Pan American 62.8
Pacific Southwest 58.8
America West 58.0
Piedmont 20.7 Source: Dept. of Transportation
THE 19 LATEST FLIGHTS
% 15 mins. Airline Flight Origin/Destination late or more Alaska 707 Orange County/Seattle 100% Continental 523 Columbus, Ohio/Denver 100 Continental 1605 Washington Dulles/Denver 100 Continental 509 Baltimore/Denver 100 Continental 509 Denver/San Francisco 100 Continental 1298 Salt Lake City/Denver 100 Continental 859 New Orleans/San Francisco 100 Continental 897 Washington Dulles/L.A. 100 Delta 82 Atlanta/Dallas-Ft. Worth 100 Delta 1237 Houston Hobby/Dallas 100 Delta 725 Dallas/Salt Lake City 100 Delta 82 Dallas/Los Angeles 100 Delta 1833 Salt Lake City/Boise 100 Piedmont 51 Charlotte, N.C./Phoenix 100 TWA 177 St. Louis/San Francisco 100 TWA 171 St. Louis/San Francisco 100 TWA 753 St. Louis/San Francisco 100 Southwest 725 Phoenix/Los Angeles 100 Piedmont 320 Charlotte/Charleston, W.Va. 96.55
Source: Department of Transportation