Better weather helped airlines avoid long ground delays in March, marking the fourth month out of the last six in which no U.S. planes were stuck on the ground for more than three hours, the government said Tuesday.
Department of Transportation data showed that despite the lack of long delays, fewer flights were on time than a year ago. The country's 16 largest airlines had a combined on-time arrival rate of 79.2 percent in March, down from 80 percent last March. In February, when massive snowstorms led to thousands of delays and cancellations, the on-time rate was 74.5 percent. Hawaiian Airlines once again clinched the top spot with the most flights on time, followed by United. JetBlue came in last.
There were fewer cancellations in March than a year earlier. And the 1.3 percent rate of cancellations compares with 4.9 percent in February _ one of the highest on record. The rate in March 2010 was 1.5 percent.
Two flights in March were labeled "chronically delayed," meaning they were more than 30 minutes late, more than 50 percent of the time for two straight months. Both were operated by JetBlue Airways Corp. One was a flight between Boston and Palm Beach, Fla., and the other was a flight between Long Beach, Calif., and San Francisco.
Airlines lost or damaged fewer bags in March than both the month and year before. Fewer passengers complained in March than the year before, but gripes about service rose from February.
March was the second straight month in which there were no three-hour tarmac delays for U.S. airlines. The government's rule threatening huge fines for long tarmac delays has been in place for more than a year, but the Transportation Department has yet to fine an airline for a violation. There have been 16 planes stuck for more than three hours since last April. There were 25 three-hour-plus delays in March 2010, the month before the rule went into effect.
The government also reported on Tuesday that airlines spent an average of $2.80 per gallon for fuel in March. That compares with an average price of $2.77 in February and $2.17 in March 2010. Higher fuel prices are one of the major reasons for airlines raising fares. The government said last week that the average domestic airline ticket price rose by 5.2 percent in the last three months of 2010 compared with the same period a year earlier. So far this year, airlines have raised fares seven times.
Samantha Bomkamp can be reached at http://twitter.com/SamWillTravel