U.S. airlines canceled 4,754 flights in September, a 62 percent jump from the same month a year ago, as the government requires carriers to let passengers off stuck flights within three hours.
The cancellation rate, rising to 0.9 percent from 0.57 percent in September 2009, has increased in four of five months since the Transportation Department imposed a rule April 29 to discourage airlines from keeping passengers trapped on delayed aircraft.
Since May, 12 flights have been delayed by at least three hours, down from 535 in the same period a year earlier, according to a Transportation Department report released in Washington.
Carriers are seeking to avoid fines as high as $27,500 per customer stuck on a plane during a lengthy delay under the rule by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Airlines said the requirement would lead to cancellations, and as of September an additional 5,000 flights were scrapped, an 18 percent rise, since the rule took effect.
The agency's data don't show how many cancellations are prompted by the rule or by circumstances such as equipment breakdowns or foul weather.
"Cancellations are a much worse result for passengers" than long delays, said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, an advocacy group in Chevy Chase, Maryland. "The time it takes them to get to their destinations may last up to days" after a flight is scrubbed, he said.
Stempler said a portion of the increase in cancellations probably is a result of the tarmac rule, though he said he doesn't know how much.
The report showed 85.1 percent of flights arrived on time in September, down from 86.2 percent in the same month a year earlier.
Hawaiian Holdings Inc.'s Hawaiian Airlines had the best on- time rate in September at 95.8 percent, followed by AirTran Holdings Inc. at 90.7 percent and Alaska Air Group Inc.'s Alaska Airlines at 90.5 percent.
Delta Air Lines Inc.'s Comair regional carrier had 78.2 percent of flights on-time, the lowest among 18 airlines that report results. JetBlue Airways Corp. had the second-worst rate at 78.8 percent, followed by Delta at 81.5 percent.
San Francisco and New York's Kennedy and LaGuardia had the worst on-time performance among major airports, with fewer than 80 percent of flights arriving on time in September.
Denver's airport had the best on-time performance, at 90 percent, followed by Phoenix at 88.9 percent and Baltimore at 88 percent.