Washington A quarter of domestic flights failed to arrive on time in 2007 - the industry's second poorest performance on record - and analysts say it is likely to get worse.
More than 26 percent of commercial flights in the U.S. arrived late or were canceled last year as rising passenger demand and an industry preference for smaller planes intensified congestion in the skies and on runways. The air-travel logjam, reported Tuesday by the Department of Transportation, comes as a growing number of air traffic controllers near retirement age - a trend the controllers' union says will magnify the problem.
The only time passengers had more difficulty getting to their destinations on time was in 2000, when more than 27 percent of flights were tardy or canceled. Back then, there were 31 percent fewer flights than in 2007, when carriers operated nearly 7.5 million one-way trips.
Excluding cancellations, however, 2007 was the worst on record for flight delays, with 24.2 percent arriving late, compared with 23.9 percent in 2000, according to government statistics that date back to 1995. The worst month of the year for the nation's 20 largest airlines was December, when more than a third of all flights were late or canceled, mostly because of the weather.
There is no sign of improvement on the horizon, analysts said, because airlines continue to replace larger aircraft with smaller ones. The practice is intended to maximize profit by flying with fewer empty seats, but it also means more flights, congestion and delays.
The use of smaller planes also increases airlines' exposure to rising fuel prices, since it costs them more money per seat to operate, said Robert Mann, an airline consultant in Port Washington, N.Y.