Superstorm Sandy shattered the airlines' year-long streak of arriving on time more often, making October's flight-cancellation rate of 2.8 percent the highest on record for any October in 17 years.
There were also more delayed flights. Major U.S. airlines had 80.2 percent of their flights arrive on time in October. That's down from the 85.5 percent rate in October of last year and 83.3 percent in September, according to data released Tuesday by the Transportation Department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
The 2.8 percent cancellation rate was up from the 0.8 percent cancellation rates in both October 2011 and September 2012.
The October cancellation rate was far above the average of 1.35 percent in the previous 17 years that airlines have been reporting figures to the government. The bureau pointed to Sandy, which rolled up the Eastern Seaboard late in the month and forced airports to close, as a major cause.
Most major airlines canceled flights in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy, which left fewer passengers stranded in airports.
Two domestic flights were delayed more than three hours on airport tarmacs in October, the bureau reported. But they weren't related to Sandy. The long tarmac delays both took place on Oct. 24 on flights departing from Denver during a snowstorm. The bureau says it's investigating both delays.
There were no tarmac delays of more than four hours on international flights.
Airlines are required to let passengers return to the gate if their flights are delayed on tarmacs by more than three hours on domestic flights or four hours on international flights. Exceptions are allowed for safety, security or air traffic reasons.
There were also more mishandled bags in October. Carriers reported 2.83 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers, up from October 2011's rate of 2.65 and September 2012's rate of 2.70.
Flights largely have been more on time this year. The 82 percent on-time arrival performance during the first 10 months of this year was the third-highest for any January to October period in the 18 years with comparable numbers. The 1.29 percent cancellation rate for the 10-month period was the second-lowest in 18 years with comparable numbers.
"Fewer flights, less congestion, generally favorable weather. What's not to like?" says Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst with R.W. Mann.
Alan Bender, professor of aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, says there are fewer delays because there are fewer airlines due to mergers in the industry.
"Since network airlines compete with each other primarily with their schedules," Bender says, "fewer airlines obviously means less reason to over-schedule flights at peak times to gain a competitive advantage over other airlines."
Southwest Airlines is the biggest domestic carrier of passengers. Bender says Southwest's strategy of flying point to point rather than "bunching" flights at hubs as the legacy carriers do to facilitate connections also reduces delays.
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