The nation's 20 largest carriers reported an on-time arrival rate of 81.7 percent in September, up from 76.2 percent in the same month a year ago and up from 71.7 percent in August, the Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics said.
Better weather was partly to credit for the improved results. More than 34 percent of late flights in September were delayed by weather, an improvement from a year ago when more than 40 percent of those flights experienced weather-related delays.
Despite the improved September results, more than 24 percent of flights arrived late in the first nine months of the year. The industry's on-time performance this year remained the worst since comparable data began being collected in 1995.
The statistics come amid increased concern about flight delays. Last month, federal aviation regulators held a two-day summit aimed at fixing "epidemic" delays at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport , which had the second-worst on-time arrival record of any major U.S. airport through September, followed by Newark's Liberty International Airport.
The latest government proposal to alleviate delays is to reduce JFK's hourly flight limit by 20 percent.
But the airline industry's trade group, the Air Transport Association, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs JFK, both prefer flight-path changes and improvements aimed at increasing the airport's capacity.
Not all airlines suffered through poor performance in September. Aloha Airlines had the highest on-time arrival rate at 95.4 percent, followed by Hawaiian Holdings Inc.'s Hawaiian Airlines at 93.7 percent and Frontier Airlines at 88.5 percent, according to government data.
But more than 63 percent of flights on Atlantic Southeast Airlines were delayed, and one of its flights, from Atlanta to Myrtle Beach, S.C. was late 90 percent of the time. The Delta Connection carrier, which is owned by SkyWest Inc., had the lowest on-time arrival rate, followed by Alaska Airlines at 73.3 percent and Northwest Airlines at 77.8 percent.
Customer complaints rose in September to 895 compared with 627 in the same month last year, according to the government data. But the rates of mishandled baggage fell to about 5.5 reports per 1,000 passengers from 8.3 reports a year ago.
Despite the improved statistics for September, the union representing air traffic controllers says that delays during the coming holiday season are likely to worsen.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, whose members have been working under a contract imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration for more than a year, said Monday there will be 7.5 percent fewer fully trained air traffic controllers working over the winter holidays than last year.
The union says the extended labor dispute and poor working conditions are driving veteran controllers out of the business.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency doesn't expect that any flight delays in the coming months will be related to staffing levels among controllers
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y, blamed the FAA's former administrator, Marion Blakey, for engaging in a needlessly confrontational battle with the controllers.
"She didn't fight for her agency so they're short of technology and air traffic controllers," Schumer said in an interview. Blakey's five-year term ended in September.
Schumer said he has not yet made up his mind about acting FAA administrator Robert A. Sturgell who has been nominated by President Bush to take the job permanently.
The airlines and the FAA are pressing for a new, satellite-based air traffic control system that will cost about $15 billion and take nearly 20 years to complete. Airline traffic is projected to double by 2025. The FAA in late August awarded ITT Corp. a contract worth up to $1.8 billion to build the first portion the system.