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Chronically late airlines could face US fines

Carriers criticize government's threat of penalties

WASHINGTON - Airlines that operate chronically delayed flights could face stiff fines in the coming weeks as the government concludes a six-month investigation into potentially deceptive business practices.

The Transportation Department in May began investigating flights that are at least 15 minutes late more than 70 percent of the time, and so far has identified 26 that meet those criteria, an agency spokesman said yesterday.

If any of those 26 flights also were delayed in the most recent quarter being reviewed, the responsible airlines will face "significant financial penalties," agency spokesman Brian Turmail said. Results of the investigation are expected within weeks.

The commercial airlines trade group criticized the government's possible penalties.

"No one has greater incentive to move its flights on time than the airlines," said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, because they cost the industry $6 billion per year and it means "we fail our customers." But the answer is not eliminating flights from the chronically delayed list, which are there based on customer demand, he added.

The Federal Aviation Administration handles roughly 85,000 flights per day, a number predicted to reach more than 111,000 flights by 2020.

But delays this summer reached record levels.

The Transportation Department earlier this month said more than 25 percent of domestic flights arrived late between January and August - easily the industry's worst performance since comparable data began being collected in 1995.

In August alone, 23 flights were late at least 90 percent of the time, and more than 100 flights were late at least 80 percent of the time. Almost half of Atlantic Southeast Airlines' flights were delayed, and two arrived late every time they took off.

Kristen Loughman, a spokeswoman for ASA - a Delta Connection carrier owned by SkyWest Inc. - said the company was unaware of any fines being considered by the government. Any Atlantic Southeast flight on the Transportation Department's monthly report of delays becomes its top priority to fix, she added.

Other airlines that operated flights that were late at least 90 percent of the time in August were: ExpressJet Holdings Inc., which flies regional service for Continental Airlines Inc.; SkyWest Inc.; AirTran Holdings Inc.; and Delta Air Lines Inc. and its subsidiary Comair Inc.

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