Domestic flights had their best performance in more than two decades and number of lost bags hit a record low. Summary.
Airlines are more punctual and less likely to lose your bag than at any time in more than 20 years.
U.S. travelers still have to put up with packed planes, rising fees and unpredictable security lines, but they are late to fewer business meetings and are not missing as many chances to tuck their kids into bed.
Nearly 84 percent of domestic flights arrived within 15 minutes of their scheduled time in the first half of the year -- the best performance since the government started keeping track in 1988.
The improvement over the first six months of 2011, when 77 percent of flights were on time, is mostly a result of good weather and fewer planes in the sky because of the weak economy.
Airlines are also doing a better job of handling bags. Fewer than three suitcases per 1,000 passengers were reported lost, damaged or delayed from January through June, a record low.
'That's an indictment'
The two areas of improvement are related: When flights are late, bags often miss their connection. "My flights this year have been way better," said Amanda Schuier, a sales manager for a Kansas City, Mo., trucking supplier who flies about four times a week. "In the past six months, I've only had two delays."
If the current pace continues, the airlines will beat their best full-year performance, recorded in 1991, when nearly 83 percent of flights arrived on time. The worst full year was 2000, when just 73 percent of flights arrived on time, according to an AP analysis of Bureau of Transportation Statistics data.
The worst year for baggage was 1989, when nearly eight suitcases per 1,000 passengers were reported late, lost or damaged.
There are still problems. About one out of every six flights is late -- and that's after airlines have adjusted schedules to account for congestion, said airline consultant Michael Boyd. "That's an indictment, not a record," he said.
When flights are on time, it isn't just good for passengers -- it also helps the airlines' bottom lines. The industry says it costs an average of $75 a minute to operate a plane. Last year, domestic delays cost airlines an estimated $5.2 billion. U.S. airlines made a combined $577 million in profit last year.
In the first six months of the year, nature has been kind to airlines. There have been 10 percent fewer thunderstorms than usual, said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Aviation Weather Center. There has also been less snow. Minneapolis has had 12 inches, one-third the normal snowfall. New York has had about 3 inches this year, compared with a 10-year average of 20 inches.
The recession led fewer people to fly and prompted airlines to ground planes, clearing up airspace. And there are also tough penalties for long delays. For instance, if a plane is sitting on the tarmac for more than three hours, the airline can be fined up to $27,500 per passenger -- or about $4 million for a typical jet. To avoid those fines, airlines created new software. As delays persist, special alerts flash for the local airport manager and at headquarters.
'We sent a very loud message'
Since Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood took office in 2008, the department has nearly tripled the number of annual enforcement actions taken against airlines -- from 20 to 59 last year. Fines have jumped from $1.2 million to $6.1 million. "We sent a very loud message to the airlines that they need to treat people with respect," LaHood said.
Since luggage fees were introduced five years ago, there are fewer bags in the system. But airlines say that isn't the reason for improvement. They say investments in new technology are paying off.
Delta Air Lines has been a leader in this area. In an upgrade of its baggage handling capabilities at hubs in Atlanta and Los Angeles, Delta updated tag printers, bag readers and conveyor belts.
Airline executives say more reliable baggage handling is just as important as improved punctuality. After all, what good is it to arrive on time if your suitcase isn't waiting for you?
The New York Times contributed to this report.