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August 1, 2003 -- Few things are more annoying to a traveler than a late departure or arrival flight. To help to avoid this predicament, the monthly Air Travel Consumer Report, published by the U.S. Department of Transportation, is a useful resource for both the novice and veteran traveler.

In May 2003, the latest month for which statistics are available, 84.8% of domestic flights at the nation's 31 largest airports arrived on time (defined as within 15 minutes of the time printed on the ticket) .

Southwest Airlines and JetBlue were the only carriers to have an on-time arrival rate over 90%. At the bottom of the list were Atlantic Coast Airlines and Atlantic Southeast Airlines, for which more than 1 out of every 5 flights arrived late. The "Big Three" airlines -- American, United, and Delta-clustered in the middle of the rankings, with on-time arrival percentages in the mid-80's.

Among the 31 largest airports, for which arrival as well as departure statistics are released, Salt Lake City International, Houston George Bush, and Portland International, respectively, occupied the top three spots for both on-time arrivals and on-time departures. At the other end of the spectrum, Newark Airport posted the worst on-time arrival percentage (74.3%), and Atlanta Hartsfield finished last for on-time departures (81.6%) . It may not be coincidence that the world's two busiest airports, Atlanta Hartsfield and Chicago O'Hare, ranked in the bottom 5 for both arrivals and departures.

For time-pressed travelers, getting to your destination on time may hinge more on when you fly rather than where or on which airline. A pattern held constant across all airports: On-time frequency peaked for arrivals and departures from 6AM to 9AM. After 9AM, delays became increasingly common, especially between 6PM and 10PM. After 10PM, the on-time rate jumped up again. So if you can manage to reschedule your 7:30PM departure to 6:30Am, your chances of leaving on time jump by 15%.

The Department of Transportation also publishes statistics on passenger complaints. If you're scared of throwing your clothes into conveyer belt oblivion-or your prized violin, as in the case of my friend-consider this: Alaska Airlines had the fewest incidents of lost luggage, followed by Continental, Airtran, America West, and Northwest; all had fewer than 3 pieces of lost luggage per 1,000 passengers. Atlantic Southeast Airlines, in contrast, far exceeded all other airlines, with 14.88 reports of lost luggage per 1,000 passengers, more than 6 more pieces than any other airline.

Atlantic Southeast Airlines has another dubious distinction: An average of 7.51 out of every 10,000 passengers were involuntarily bumped due to overbooking, more than twice that of any other airline. JetBlue, true to its claim of great customer service, denied boarding due to overbooking to only 4 passengers between January and March 2003 (and all of them were voluntary).

While Southwest Airlines is statistically your best bet for getting to your destination on time, getting on the plane may present a problem. Of the five airlines that served over 10 million passengers between January and March 2003, it had the most involuntary bumped passenger due to overbooking. But it seems that Southwest makes amends with its passengers; fewer complaints (for any reason) were filed against Southwest per 100,000 passengers than against any other airline.

For more tips and consumer reports, check out http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov