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Slow season promises break to harried fliers

This slow travel season between Labor Day and the start of Thanksgiving is as good as it gets for road warriors. Summer vacation crowds have disappeared. There's scant chance of ending up behind a screaming kid on the plane or the clueless guy with a pocket full of coins at the security checkpoint.

Could this season be even better?

Struggling airlines have slashed their domestic schedules to eliminate money-losing flights and help boost airfares. About 1 out of every 11 flights on the books in the last three months of 2007 won't fly in this year's fourth quarter.

That surely translates into fewer people flying, so airport lines will be shorter and parking spaces easier to find. Less luggage will move between bag rooms and planes (thanks also to new airline fees), improving the odds of your suitcase arriving at the destination along with you.

How about more planes arriving on time? It makes sense that fewer planes clogging up taxiways and airspace would speed up flights for everyone.

On-time performance, defined as a flight arriving within 15 minutes of scheduled time, improved to 77.3 percent in August from 72.1 percent in August 2007, according to the Wall Street Journal. Airline capacity in August was down 8 percent year-to-year, the newspaper reported.

But persistent bad weather — thunderstorms in Florida and blizzards in Chicago — can wreck an airline's reliability numbers. And capacity reductions at airports with the worst records for delays, like New York's John F. Kennedy International and Newark International, are well below the national average.

One last question: Will fewer flights mean less crowded planes? That's something even the airlines don't know yet. The answer lies in how many seats carriers can sell at higher prices they blame on fuel costs. August statistics may hold a clue.

Domestic passenger traffic fell faster than capacity for such big names as American, United and Continental. Southwest saw traffic drop 5 percent even with slightly more seats for sale. Translation: If you can afford the ticket, there should be more room to spread out.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Slow season promises break to harried fliers 09/09/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 10, 2008 7:40am]
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