A new government report confirms what many travelers already suspected -- 2006 was a tough year to fly.
The performance of U.S. airlines in categories such as on-time arrivals, baggage handling and passenger bumping was the worst in years, according to the annual industry report card released Wednesday by the Department of Transportation.
Despite improvements in some areas -- flight cancellations and overall consumer complaints actually fell compared with 2005 -- some experts say the numbers bear out the feeling of many travelers that flying has become an ordeal.
After years of financial turmoil and cutbacks, "the airlines just can't provide the same kind of service experience that they did 10 years ago," said Dean Headley, an associate professor at Wichita State University and coauthor of an annual survey of airline quality.
The carriers blame the nation's outdated air traffic control system and weather-related disruptions for much of the bad publicity that has buffeted the industry.
Winter storms in the Midwest in November and Colorado in December closed major airline hubs, stranding thousands of passengers. And a string of violent storms that hit the Dallas-Fort Worth area Dec. 29 forced American Airlines to divert 121 flights to other airports, where some passengers sat on parked planes for eight hours or more before being allowed to leave.
In addition, the rise in baggage complaints is tied to new security rules banning liquids and gels in carry-on bags that went into effect in August after an alleged plot to bomb airliners was uncovered in Britain.
That resulted in a 20% rise in checked baggage, although the numbers shrank somewhat after the Transportation Security Administration relaxed the rules.
But critics also point to issues related to the airlines' efforts to recover from the steep financial downturn that hit the industry after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Payrolls have been slashed -- industry employment is down almost 9% since 2003 -- with many of those cuts coming in the customer service ranks. Crowded planes have added to fliers' discomfort: The percentage of seats sold hit record levels of 80% or higher at some airlines last year as they reduced flights to save money and prop up airfares.
In another cost-saving measure, airlines now charge for meals in coach class and have dropped them on many short-haul flights. Some carriers, such as United Airlines, are charging a premium for seats with more legroom or for choice aisle seats in the front of the cabin. And a raft of services that used to be free now cost money, including using a paper ticket, making reservations by phone and bringing pets on board.
"The airlines have nickel-and-dimed passengers in every conceivable way to stem the gushing red ink," airline consultant Vaughn Cordle said.
From the standpoint of the bottom line, it has worked. The industry's trade association estimates that U.S. carriers earned $2 billion to $3 billion last year after losing $35 billion in the previous five years.
But the cost in convenience and comfort has been high, Cordle said.
"I dread going to the airport now," he said. "I dread the check-in. I dread the anxiety of the crowd waiting to get through security and get on board. And once I'm on board, I worry about whether I can get a bottle of water."
The new Transportation Department numbers tell of such concerns.
About 75% of domestic flights arrived on time last year, the lowest rate since 2000, according to the report. Among individual airports, Los Angeles International ranked 15th, with almost 77% of flights arriving on time. That was down from a year earlier, when LAX ranked ninth with an 80% on-time rate. (One of LAX's four runways has been out of service for repairs since July, adding to delays.)
Bags were lost, stolen or misdirected at a rate of 6.7 per 1,000 passengers systemwide, up from 6.4 per 1,000 in 2005 and the highest since 1990. Bumping -- when passengers are involuntarily denied boarding because a flight is overbooked -- rose to 1 per 10,000 passengers, up from 0.9 per 10,000 last year and the highest since 2000.
On the positive side, flight cancellations fell to 1.7% of scheduled departures, down from 1.9% last year and the lowest since 2003. And overall customer complaints to the government fell almost 5% from 2005.
Airlines say their studies have consistently shown that amenities such as food service and blankets rank far down on the list of customers' priorities. A J.D. Power & Associates survey last year likewise found that air travelers valued customer service above "peanuts and pillows."
Steve Roll, a manager for a Denver pharmaceutical company who was at LAX this week to catch a United flight, said making customers happy should take a back seat to keeping them safe. And passengers often are just as responsible for a bad experience as the airline, he said.