The US airlines’ on-time performance is off to a promising start in 2009, as recently trimmed capacity is leading to faster turnarounds at gates.
Nearly 83% of flights handled by the nation’s 19 largest airlines arrived on time — or within 15 minutes of schedule — in February, according to the Air Travel Consumer Report released today by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. It was an improvement over both February 2008’s 68.6% and January 2009’s 77%.

The industry’s operational performance has been improving steadily since the second half of 2008, when air travel demand started to sour. To lower costs, the industry has responded by eliminating low-performing routes and moving to smaller aircraft.

In February 2008, when air travel demand was still robust and the industry was under fire for delivering more than a quarter of flights late, the U.S. airlines operated about 569,000 scheduled flights during the month. A year later, the figure is 14% lower, with only 488,000 flights scheduled for February 2009.

The cancellation rate generally improves along with on-time performance. In February, airlines canceled 1.2% of their scheduled flights, lower than both 3.6% of February 2008 and 2.3% in January 2009.