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Airlines had their best year for baggage handling in 2012 and improved on-time arrival rate

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - U.S. airlines were less likely in 2012 to lose your suitcase than at any other point in the last two decades, the government announced Tuesday.

For every 1,000 passengers, there were only 3.09 reports of lost, delayed or damaged baggage, the lowest annual rate since the Department of Transportation started tracking incidents in 1988.

Airlines also improved their performance in getting planes to gates on time. Last year, 81.85 per cent of flights arrived within 15 minutes of their scheduled time. That is the third highest rate since 1988. The record was set in 2002 at 82.14 per cent.

Airlines benefited from good weather in the first half of the year and fewer planes in the sky because of the weak economy. And fewer passengers are checking bags because of fees.

The worst year for baggage handling was 1989, when nearly eight suitcases per 1,000 passengers were reported late, lost or damaged.

Baggage handling is directly tied to airline's on-time performance. When flights are late, bags often miss their connection.

Airlines have been working hard to improve their performance. They are flying newer planes with fewer maintenance problems. New tools track the boarding of passengers and loading of baggage onto individual flights. If either falls behind schedule, extra workers are deployed to ensure an on-time departure.

The airlines are also being more realistic about their schedules. Flight times have been extended on some trips to account for air traffic delays. For instance, Delta Air Lines adds up to 16 minutes for Atlanta-to-New York flights during peak hours.

All of that has led to more on-time flights. There are still problems, however. About one out of every six flights is late — and that's after airlines have adjusted schedules to account for congestion.

Weather remains one of the key factors in delays. Hawaiian Airlines — which often flies into sunny airports — remained in December as the best-performing airline, with a 93.3 per cent on-time rate. Delta was number two at 85 per cent, according to the DOT's Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

For the year, the congested airport in Newark, N.J., just outside of New York, was the worst for arrival and departure delays. Salt Lake City was the best.

There was one sour spot for airlines in December: there were 16 domestic flights stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours, including 14 American or American Eagle flights at Dallas-Fort Worth during a Dec. 25 snow and ice storm.

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Scott Mayerowitz can be reached at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott.

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