US report card puts pressure on the airlines to arrive on time

Pity the poor traveler who flew Continental Airlines from Denver to Newark, N.J., - if he left on any 10:55 a.m. flight in September, he would have arrived late every time. Three Delta Air Lines flights also recently received the same 100-percent-late booby prize for the month. To be fair, runners-up were Eastern, Piedmont, USAir, and Pan American, all of which had one or two flights that managed to be late at least 96 percent of the time.

Flights that arrive late all of the time are, of course, the exception and the downside to air travel. Statistics released by the Department of Transportation Tuesday also show an upside, which is that at least 77 percent of the industry's flights were on time.

The new numbers tell which airlines bump more passengers off flights, which airlines receive the most complaints, which are on time the most, and which lose luggage most frequently.

But what do the new numbers really say? And where do you get them?

The monthly numbers may be published in newspapers for a while. And it is hoped that beginning early next year travel agents will have the information in their computer systems. DOT also publishes an 800-page computer printout that it will sell for $100 to anybody who really wants a detailed look.

One thing is certain: The department will be under increasing pressure to make sure the numbers remain accurate and meaningful. Already the skirmish is beginning among airlines to improve the numbers and advertise them in ways that will make them look as good as possible.

American Airlines is already touting its top position in on-time performance, and USAir, as one of the worst on-time performers, has publicly vowed to do better. Consumer groups, while optimistic about the effects of the new statistics, agree that it is too early to tell whether they will be a boon or a boondoggle.

``If the public picks up on it and is aware of the existence of the reports and begins making buying choices based on the performance, it could very well have an impact on airline performance,'' says Daniel T. Smith, a spokesman for the International Airline Passengers Association. ``I think it already has.''

Some statistical curiosities, however, have already arisen, including the fact that Delta, with few customer complaints, ranked well below Continental and Eastern in on-time performance. Both Continental and Eastern, however, reported a high number of consumer complaints. Delta says it holds many of its flights to allow baggage and other passengers to make connecting flights.

With pressure on to improve numbers, there is debate about the validity of some figures. Airlines tally baggage loss figures different ways. And there are concerns that on-time performance not be artificially inflated by overattributing delays and cancellations to mechanical problems, which are not included in the statistics.

``We're concerned that everyone plays by the rules or else the numbers don't mean anything,'' says Jackie Pate, a spokeswoman for Delta.

There is some concern ``about the methodology, especially the issue of excluding flights canceled or delayed because of mechanical difficulties,'' says Cornish Hitchcock, legal director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, affiliated with Ralph Nader. DOT says the mechanical problems are excluded, because it doesn't want to encourage airlines to fly planes with problems.

Agreeing with Mr. Hitchcock, Mr. Smith says: ``The delays caused by mechanical problems and outright cancellations are not figured into these reports, so that the data may in fact be skewed, so the more disruptive of the delays and cancellations do not figure into the rating system.''

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