Taking aviation's pulse

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Airline for pets starts flying in various US cities

Airline for pets starts flying in various US cities (David McNew, Getty Images)

Every month, the U.S. Department of Transportation releases a fascinating window into the American aviation system, and it's there for everyone to see.

The Air Travel Consumer Report usually is released at the second week of each month, with a head-spinning number of statistics and useful facts about the industry two months prior. For instance, the most recent report, released the week of Sept. 16, told the nation's flight story for July (though longer-term information is laced through the report).

What did it say? A lot, and what's most relevant and interesting depends on you.

Do you fly with animals? The report says which airlines have had trouble transporting them. Do you often fly between two particular cities? The report reveals the best times to fly into and out of those cities. If you want to avoid the airlines with the most customer complaints, (in July, it was United, by far), you're empowered with that information.

I'm a particular fan of the list of "chronically delayed flights for three consecutive months." You'll see, for instance, that Southwest's 7:45 p.m. flight from Baltimore to New York's LaGuardia Airport was late at least 60 percent of the time in May, June and July; the delays averaged between 76 minutes and more than an hour and a half. Sound like a route to avoid to you?

As for the airline with the highest rate of delays in July, that was United, whose flights arrived on time a mere 64 percent of the time. Other major carriers were significantly better, including American, which clocked in at 75 percent and Delta at 80. (A tip gleaned from the report: Flights are far more likely to be on time during the first half of the day.)

Those figures are just a start. There is a wealth of information throughout the report, which is divided into six sections: flight delays; mishandled baggage; oversales (that is, people bumped because the airline overbooked it — of major carriers, United, again, had a bad month); consumer complaints; customer service report; and loss, injury and death of animals.

The monthly reports are cataloged back to 1998 at airconsumer.dot.gov. (At the same website are forms and phone numbers for travelers to file DOT complaints.)

Obviously, for useful trend information, the statistics need to be analyzed over many months or years. But the information is all there, and it's refreshingly easy to find, simple to access and relatively transparent. Within the 50 or so pages of each report is a rare example of a government agency making information simply accessible.

In case you were wondering — and I know you were — two animals were injured in July (on Alaska and Delta airlines) and one animal was lost (on American). None, fortunately, was reported killed.

The Travel Mechanic is dedicated to better, smarter, more fulfilling travel. Thoughts, comments and suggestions can be sent to jbnoel@tribune.com. Include "Travel Mechanic" in the subject line. Follow him on Twitter at @traveljosh.

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