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    Airport improves its on-time record

    By JEAN HELLER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 4, 2003

    TAMPA -- Fewer flights, good weather and air traffic control improvements combined to make 2002 the best year in the last eight for on-time flights at the nation's largest airports.

    Even at Tampa International Airport, where the on-time record is generally good, there was improvement.

    According to figures released Monday by the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, TIA ranked 15th among the nation's 32 largest airports for on-time airline departures, with only about 14 percent of its flights pushing away from their gates late.

    "If a flight arrives here late, more than 90 percent of the time we couldn't do anything about it," said Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. "But if you can take those late arrivals, turn them around and get them out on time, then you can see that the airlines are doing a very good job."

    In 2001, TIA was fifth best on the list, but more than 17 percent of all flights left late. While TIA's record improved by about 3 percent, its position fell because other airports improved more.

    The statistics are part of a series of studies that show an uneven but definite improvement in on-time service from a disastrous 2000, when horrendous summer storms and widespread labor disputes disrupted air traffic from coast to coast for much of the year.

    The Federal Aviation Administration considers a flight on time if it arrives or departs within 15 minutes of schedule.

    As an indicator of how good 2002 was for on-time operations, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics ranked late arrivals among major airlines for all of the nation's commercial airports dating to January 1995. The worst month was January 1996, with more than 37.3 percent of all flights arriving late. December 2000 was the second worst month, at 37.2 percent.

    Of the worst 20 months in the eight-year period, six of them were from 2000, including the critical summer travel months when violent storms combined with labor strife to create massive air travel disruptions.

    On the 96-month list, all 12 months of 2002 were in the top half, ranging from December, when fewer than 22 percent of flights arrived late, to September -- the No. 1 month -- when only 12 percent of flights arrived late.

    One thing that did not improve in 2002 were the number of flights flown by the nation's largest airlines. There were fewer than 5.3-million, down from almost 6-million in 2001, due to post-terrorist cutbacks. There were fewer flights in 2002 than there were in 1995.

    "If it hadn't been for the terrorism, 2001 would have topped 6-million flights, and 2002 would have been even better," Miller said.

    David Smallen, public affairs director of the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, said there were factors in addition to weather and labor problems that dragged down 2000.

    That was also the year the FAA abandoned limitations, called slot controls, on takeoffs and landings at LaGuardia Airport in New York City. As a result, traffic there rose from 31,000 operations a month to more than 37,000, and delays rose from 3,100 to 10,500 in a five-month period.

    Since New York is the No. 1 destination from TIA, the impacts at LaGuardia had impacts here.

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