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The Boston Globe

Business

Airlines’ on-time data incomplete, report says

NEW YORK — Travelers on Monday experienced a new round of cancellations and delays as another winter storm grounded planes yet again. But many of those flights won’t be counted as late or canceled in the government’s on-time statistics.

A recent federal report said passengers are getting only part of the picture, and that the industry’s on-time performance is actually much lower than billed. And a proposal to require carriers to provide a more accurate picture has yet to be adopted more than two years after it was proposed.

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On-time statistics capture only 76 percent of domestic flights at US commercial airports, according to a December report by the Transportation Department’s inspector general.

These statistics do not include many segments of the industry that have grown in recent years: international flights, flights flown by Spirit Airlines, or many flights operated by regional carriers and other partners. The biggest gap in reporting typically involves smaller planes that are more likely to be delayed or canceled.

The proposed rule would increase the number of carriers required to report data about delays and cancellations, improving the accuracy of the on-time statistics the government announces every month.

It is part of a set of passenger protections that began the lengthy federal rule-making process in April 2011, but the announcement of the final proposed rule has been postponed multiple times.

The latest target date for its release, Jan. 24, has come and gone with no action by the Transportation Department, leaving passenger advocates irate.

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“I’m totally frustrated by this,” said Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a passenger advocacy group. “I’ve written letters, I’ve stood in front of the DOT with a big banner, I’ve gone on TV. Now we’re up to around 1,000 days since the rule was proposed.”

The Transportation Department declined to discuss the inspector general’s report, or the timing of the long-delayed passenger protections, which have been under review by the Office of Management and Budget since April.

But the department e-mailed a statement saying: “We are always open to suggestions for improving the usefulness of our on-time performance information and members of the public will have an opportunity to comment on any proposal issued by the department.”

Perhaps a thornier problem for data collectors is how long passengers, not flights, are delayed, particularly with carriers operating near full capacity and few empty seats to accommodate travelers who get stuck — sometimes for days — because of a missed connection or canceled flight.

“Wouldn’t that be something — if you could see how many passengers were delayed one day, two days or three days?” Leocha said. “I’m sure that would make people’s jaws drop.”

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