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Almost 1 in 3 Domestic Flights Late in February

Nearly a third of domestic flights failed to arrive on time in February, continuing a period of historically poor performance for an industry plagued with safety concerns and pinched by fuel costs.

More than 31 percent of commercial flights in the U.S. arrived late, were canceled or diverted in February, according to Transportation Department data released Thursday.

Although the results are better than last February, that's not saying much. February 2007 was the sixth worst month on record, with 33 percent of flights arriving late. And this February's results were worse than January's, when almost 28 percent of flights arrived late, were canceled or diverted.

One reason: Airlines are replacing big planes with smaller ones to fly with fewer empty seats. But that crowds the skies and gates, analysts say.

Weather hasn't helped. In February, nearly 47 percent of late flights were delayed by weather, up from more than 38 percent in the year-ago period.

American Eagle Airlines, which operates regional flights for AMR's American Airlines, had the worst February with more than 39 percent of its flights delayed by at least 15 minutes. JetBlue's evening flight from Newark, N.J., to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was the worst individual performer, arriving an average of 69 minutes late every time it took off.

Aloha Airlines had the best on-time arrival rate in February at nearly 96 percent. Reports of mishandled baggage also improved in February to about 6.4 per 1,000 passengers from more than 8.2 reports in the same month last year.

Passenger complaints also rose to 936 from 826 in the year-ago period. They're not the only ones complaining.

At a congressional hearing Thursday, airline executives will be asked to explain what lawmakers see as dangerously cozy relationship with regulators. The hearing comes a day after UAL's United Airlines grounded dozens of flights, the latest in string of maintenance concerns and canceled flights involving Southwest Airlines , AMR's American Airlines and Delta Air Lines .

Congress and the White House already had the industry on its radar for last year's dismal on-time performance. More than 26 percent of commercial flights in the U.S. arrived late or were canceled last year, the second worst showing since comparable data began being collected in 1995, according to government data.

Government efforts to ease congestion at the nation's busiest airports are facing headwind from the carriers.

The airline industry earlier this week said it may sue the Transportation Department to stop it from allowing congestion pricing models to be used at those busy airports.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters in January said the policy will make it easier for airports to reduce delays by charging fees based on traffic volume, instead of aircraft weight alone. The proposal also would allow operators of multiple airports, such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, to distribute landing-fee revenue among facilities.

The Air Transport Association said the department doesn't have the authority to let airports charge higher landing fees during peak travel times under the plan that could start later this month.

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