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CEO says Southwest Airlines will throttle back on busy schedule to improve on-time rating

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DALLAS - Southwest Airlines is falling behind other airlines when it comes to arriving on time, and the carrier plans to tinker with its flight schedule to fix that.

CEO Gary Kelly says the airline will add a few minutes between some flights, and it will be more cautious about selling itineraries with tight connections between flights.

Southwest has long prided itself for being on time. It still ranks No. 1 all-time among the six big airlines that have been reporting such records to the government since 1987. But it hasn't topped the charts for a full year since 2001 and hasn't beaten all the other major carriers since 2009.

Last year, Southwest fell to 12th place — and behind all its closest rivals in size: United, Delta, American and US Airways — among 16 airlines that reported figures to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Only 76.7 per cent of Southwest flights arrived within 14 minutes of schedule, which is the government's definition of being on time. That was down from 83.1 per cent in 2012.

"We've got significant schedule changes that are planned for the summer," Kelly said. "That's when I want to be monitoring the on-time performance and making sure that we see the improvement that we need. We need to get back to where we were for 2012."

Kelly made the comments to reporters Tuesday during a tour of Southwest Airlines Co.'s new $120 million training building, which also houses a new operations centre where staffers will oversee the 3,600 daily flights operated by Southwest and its AirTran Airways subsidiary.

The on-time breakdown starts at the airport gate. Southwest was once legendary for turning around incoming planes and sending them back out for the next flight in about 10 minutes. That "turn time" has slipped to about 30 minutes as planes have filled more seats, Southwest has added newer and larger versions of the Boeing 737 jet to carry more passengers, and it has added flights at congested big-city airports.

Compounding matters last year, Southwest began packing more flights into the peak hours of the day when most customers wanted to fly. The move backfired.

"We tried to get a little more aggressive in 2013, and it probably is the cause of our dip in on-time performance," Kelly said. But, he said, customers like the busy schedules that offer more itineraries. He added that improving the on-time rating must be balanced against the risk of losing revenue by failing to offer all the itineraries that passengers want.

"As long as we're operating a full airplane," Kelly said, "I don't mind spending an extra minute or two turning it."

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David Koenig can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/airlinewriter

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