Surprise! Airlines are canceling fewer flights, losing fewer bags than they have in decades

Baggage claim
John Greim | LightRocket | Getty Images

While airlines continue to be blasted on social media when a traveler gets bumped or delayed, the latest numbers from the federal government show the industry just put up its best performance in decades when it comes to completing flights and handling bags.

According to the Department of Transportation, U.S. airlines canceled just 1.17 percent of scheduled flights in 2016, the lowest rate in 22 years. In addition, the number of complaints about mishandled bags dropped to 2.7 per 1,000 passengers — the lowest level recorded by the DOT since it started tracking that measure in 1987.

The percentage of passengers bumped from flights also fell, hitting its lowest mark since 1995 at a rate of 0.62 per 10,000 passengers.

Altogether, the metrics point to a trifecta of improved customer service in an industry that's long been criticized for being among the worst at it.

Several reasons are behind the improvement. For one, the technologies for moving planes, passengers and bags have improved, said Rick Garlick, who leads the global travel and hospitality practice at J.D. Power. Delta Air Lines, for example, is investing Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) bag tags so passengers know where their luggage is at all times.

"The better technology means airlines can now make guarantees about delivering checked bags. There's a higher standard of accountability," Garlick said.

The second reason is a change in corporate philosophies at the airlines. A decade ago, when airlines were losing billions of dollars, the focus was primarily about cutting costs — even if that meant hurting service. Today, with airlines enjoying record profits, they're investing more in their operations to keep travelers happy.

"The airlines realize investing in their product allows them to be more competitive, grow profits and keep customers coming back, especially business fliers who are the most lucrative," Garlick said.

Last year, 81.4 percent of flights arrived at their destinations on time. That was an improvement over 2015's rate of 79.9 percent.

For the year, Hawaiian Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Delta had the best on-time performance, while Spirit Airlines had the poorest rating. Its flights landed as scheduled just 74.3 percent of the time.

"Certainly, the first quarter of 2016 was difficult on Spirit's operations, mainly because of poor weather in the quarter. Bad weather hurts Spirit disproportionately more than other airlines," Spirit spokesman Paul Berry told CNBC in a statement.

"This led to our on-time performance being approximately 15 percent worse than the industry average for the quarter. However in the second quarter we narrowed the gap by half, and by the third quarter our on-time performance was right in line with the rest of the industry. Our on-time performance continues to either meet or outperform the industry in 2017."

Update: This story has been updated to include comment from Spirit Airlines.