Airline passengers hate delays, yet few seem to realize they could improve their odds of arriving on time if they heeded one simple clue.
Just for the asking, travelers can learn any flight's recent record for tardiness.An example: If you were thinking of taking USAir Flight 896 from Philadelphia to Boston at 5:55 p.m. you could know your chances of arriving late are better than 80 percent. "Late" is defined as more than 15 minutes behind schedule.
The clue lies in the flight's code that appears in airline and travel-agent computers. The code for the USAir flight, for example, has a "1" as the last digit. That means that for the past month the flight has arrived on time between 10 and 20 percent of the time.
A "2" at the end of a flight's computer code would mean the flight lands on time between 20 and 30 percent of the time and so on up to the 90 to 100 percent range. A rating of less than 30 percent gets "chronically late" honors in the Department of Transportation's monthly "Air Travel Consumer Report."
So what does a traveler do if the flight scores low?
A passenger flying from Philadelphia to Boston could take Delta 648 at 4:50 p.m. with a 60 to 70 percent chance of arriving on time, or USAir 424 10 minutes later, which has a 40 to 50 percent chance.
But how often do customers ask for this information?
"No one ever has," said Yolande Frommer, referring to customers at her Washington, D.C., travel agency.
They'll ask the type of aircraft, how many seats are in a row, where the exits are and what movie is playing, she said, but they don't think to ask the chances of the plane arriving on time, even though it often is a major concern.
Many people simply aren't aware that the information is available.
Phil Davidoff, president-elect of the American Society of Travel Agents, said that although few travelers use the data, some agents notify customers when the on-time rating is below 50 percent.
The data comes from the airlines themselves. They are required by law to report it to the government each month. Delays due to mechanical problems are not counted in the ratings because the government thinks that including them might encourage airlines to rush repairs in order to keep up their on-time rating.
Chris Witkowski of the Ralph Nader-founded Aviation Consumer Action Project said the ratings are an important tool for wise travelers.
Some other consumer groups disagree. Richard Livingston of the Airline Passengers Association of North America, a consumer and safety advocacy group, said he thinks the government should pay more attention to the relative safety and security of flights instead of collecting data which might not be used by passengers.