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Passenger complaints fly with a third of flights late

August 07, 2007|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

This summer is officially turning out to be the worst for U.S. air travel as nearly a third of all domestic flights in June were late, and passenger complaints shot up 43%.

The combination of severe storms, more planes in the air and an overloaded air traffic control system kept many travelers stuck at airports for hours, the Transportation Department said Monday.

With June's poor showing, the U.S. airline industry posted its worst on-time performance for the first six months of the year since 1995.

But in all the gloom, there was a silver lining for Southern Californians. Despite long lines, more planes at Los Angeles International Airport departed and arrived on time than at most other airports.

"We're delighted," said Paul Haney, LAX deputy executive director for airports and security. "On-time flights are a key driver of airport customer satisfaction."

For the first six months of the year, the airport shot up to fifth from 19th in the rankings of 32 major airports for on-time arrivals as it avoided storms that wreaked havoc on East Coast airports.

Much of the gain had more to do with other airports suffering greater delays than with any improvements at LAX, where the percentage of planes that departed and arrived on time didn't change. About 81% of planes departed LAX on time during January to June, virtually unchanged from the year-earlier period.

But other cities' airports fell sharply, led by Cincinnati and Washington, both of which dropped by about 10 percentage points for on-time departures. Only six airports had planes depart on time more than 80% of the time.

Chicago's O'Hare International Airport was the worst with only 65% of its flights taking off as scheduled. Planes are considered late if they leave the gate 15 minutes past their scheduled departure time.

Still, the latest rankings provided some good news for LAX officials who have been fighting public perceptions that their airport is one of the more congested in the U.S. The airport's climb up the rankings also came as it relocated a runway, which LAX officials had feared would lead to flight delays.

As LAX benefited from favorable weather, much of the Eastern half of the U.S. experienced some of the worst delays ever as nearly half of the late flights were attributed to severe storms.

The top five airports for on-time performance were on the West Coast while, with the exception of Chicago, the next four worst were all on the East Coast.

In all, 68% of flights nationwide were on time in June, down from 78% in May and 73% in June 2006.

Complaints filed by consumers to the Transportation Department shot up 43% to nearly 1,100 compared with 763 in the year-earlier period.

Airline industry consultant Michael Boyd blamed much of the delays on an antiquated air traffic control system.

"Do airlines screw up? Absolutely," Boyd said. "But in terms of the majority of the delays, we don't have the technology in place to allow controllers to safely handle the increased volume and redirect traffic around storms."

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