NEW YORK -- U.S. airlines are more punctual and less likely to lose baggage than at any time in more than two decades.
Travelers still have to put up with packed planes, rising fees, and unpredictable security lines, but they are late to fewer business meetings and are not missing as many chances to tuck their children into bed.
Nearly 84 percent of domestic flights arrived within 15 minutes of their scheduled time in the first half of the year -- the best performance since the government started keeping track in 1988.
The improvement over the first six months of 2011, when 77 percent of flights were on time, is mostly a result of good weather and fewer planes in the sky because of the weak economy.
Airlines are also doing a better job of handling bags. Fewer than three suitcases per 1,000 passengers were reported lost, damaged, or delayed from January through June, a record low. The two areas of improvement are related: When flights are late, bags often miss their connection.
The percentage of flights at some of the nation's largest airports that arrived on-time in the first six months of 2012:
1: Salt Lake City -- 89.72
2: Charlotte -- 87.54
3: Minneapolis/St. Paul -- 87.14
4: Phoenix -- 86.85
5: Las Vegas -- 86.67
6: Chicago Midway -- 86.16
7: Baltimore -- 86.14
8: Atlanta -- 85.91
9: Detroit -- 85.73
Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics
"My flights this year have been way better," said Amanda Schuier, a sales manager for a Kansas City trucking supplier who flies roughly four times a week. "In the past six months, I've only had two delays."
If the pace continues, the airlines will beat their best full-year performance, recorded in 1991, when nearly 83 percent of flights arrived on time. The worst full year was 2000, when just 73 percent of flights arrived on time, according to an Associated Press analysis of Bureau of Transportation Statistics data.
The worst year for baggage handling was 1989, when nearly eight suitcases per 1,000 passengers were reported late, lost, or damaged.
There are still problems. About one out of every six flights is late -- and that's after airlines have adjusted schedules to account for congestion, airline consultant Michael Boyd said. "That's an indictment, not a record."
When flights are on time, it isn't just good for passengers -- it helps bottom lines. The industry says it costs an average of $75 a minute to operate a plane. Last year, domestic delays cost airlines an estimated $5.2 billion. U.S. airlines made a combined $577 million in profit in 2011.
In the first six months of this year, nature has been kind. There have been 10 percent fewer thunderstorms than usual, according to a decade of data analyzed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Aviation Weather Center.
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There also has been less snow. New York City had about 3 inches this year, compared with a 10-year average of 20 inches. Chicago, which averages 27 inches of snow from January through June, had just 18. And Minneapolis had 12 inches, one-third the normal snowfall at this point.
The recession led fewer people to fly and prompted airlines to ground planes, clearing up airspace. In 2007, 14.8 million planes took off and landed at the nation's 35 largest airports, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Last year, the number fell 10 percent to 13.3 million.
The airlines also are taking steps to improve their on-time performance. They include:
Better technology. Airlines are flying newer planes with fewer maintenance problems. New tools track the boarding of passengers and loading of baggage onto flights. If either falls behind, extra workers are deployed to ensure an on-time departure.
More realistic 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 in peak hours.
Timely delivery of food and fuel. Airlines have revised contracts with suppliers to include incentives for on-time deliveries and penalties for late ones.
Improved boarding procedures. The order passengers get on a plane has been streamlined.
New government rules also deter delays. The Department of Transportation requires airlines to display the on-time performance of each flight on their Web sites. There are also stiff penalties for long delays.