It was the best of years it was the worst of years

Planes: Airlines racked up a lot of miles, a lot of ticket sales and a lot of death and dismay.

March 16, 1997|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Last year was a good year for the United States' passenger airlines. Industry figures show they filled 69.8 percent of their seats, up from 67.3 percent in the very profitable year before. They boosted the number of miles flown by paying passengers by 6.7 percent (to 548.9 billion). And they made billions in profits.

But by several other measures, 1996 was a bad year indeed. A recent release from the U.S. Transportation Department shows that tardy arrivals and cancellations increased from the year before; crews mishandled more baggage; more passengers were involuntarily bumped from flights. And, not surprisingly, passenger complaints to federal officials leaped by nearly 18 percent.

Here are some statistics:

An on-time flight, by industry definition, arrives within 15 minutes of its scheduled time. The 10 largest U.S. carriers together were on time with 74.5 percent of flights in 1996, down from 78.6 percent the previous year.

Your odds of having a bag mishandled by a major U.S. carrier last year were 5.30 in 1,000. (In 1995 the number was 5.18.)

When airlines sell more tickets than they have seats, they even the numbers out by "bumping" passengers, sometimes on a volunteer basis, sometimes involuntarily. In the government tally of involuntary bumps over the first nine months of 1996 the most unreliable major carrier was Southwest, which bumped 9,455 passengers, or 2.30 for every 10,000 to board. That rate was more than twice the 1996 average of 1.06 bumps per 10,000, and far exceeded Continental (0.18 per 10,000) and Northwest and American (both 0.54 per 10,000). The majors' 1995 rate of involuntary bumps was 1.03 per 10,000.

Altogether, major carriers got 7,105 service complaints last year (or 0.74 per 100,000 passengers), up from 1995's total of 6,025.

In its February issue, Business Traveler magazine reported that 1996 was the worst year ever for commercial air passenger fatalities worldwide, with 1,187 deaths. Among U.S.-based carriers, 342 passenger fatalities were counted, most of them in the Valujet crash in Florida in May and the TWA crash off Long Island in July. That U.S. fatality figure was the worst since 1985, when 486 passengers died in five separate accidents among U.S.-based carriers.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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