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S.L. International Airport is No. 1 — in punctuality

Salt Lake City's airplane passengers shouldn't worry about getting to and from Grandma's house on time this holiday season.

That's because Salt Lake City International Airport has become the most punctual airport out of the 33 largest airports in the United States.

New data, released by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) this month, show Salt Lake City International Airport has moved from having the third-best on-time arrival statistics during the first three quarters of 2004 to the No. 1 spot for the same time period this year.

The state's largest airport also ranked No. 2 in on-time departures, just .06 percent behind No. 1 Houston.

All told, 83.57 percent of all flights coming into Salt Lake City arrived on time from January 2005 through September. And 84.72 percent of all flights leaving Salt Lake City took off on schedule, the BTS found. Flights that leave or arrive within 15 minutes of their schedule are considered on time.

Several factors can cause flight delays, but "weather is the biggest single factor in on-time performance," BTS spokesman Bill Mosley said.

Case in point was Wednesday — one of the busiest travel days of the year. In Chicago and New York flights were delayed as bad weather hampered holiday travelers. In Salt Lake City, however, clear, if hazy, skies prevailed and there were no major delays, Department of Airports spokeswoman Barbara Gann said.

It's not all about weather, though. Take Las Vegas: Good weather is abundant but the airport ranks 28th in on-time departures. In many cases, like Las Vegas, airport congestion is to blame, Mosley said.

In Salt Lake City's case, Gann said the good marks are a combination of pleasant weather and exceptional airport operations.

"We have a strong partnership with the airlines and work very closely with them to streamline the airport operations, and the stats bear that out," she said.

For several years now, Federal Aviation Administration officials in Salt Lake City have been pushing an idea to redesign the airspace around the city's airport. FAA officials have stressed that Salt Lake City's airspace is growing more crowded and needs to be redesigned or else more flights will be delayed. Portions of that redesign have been fought by several politicians and the Department of Airports.

The new statistics show the city's airport actually has a higher percentage of on-time arrivals then it did in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2004. The only recent year that had a better on-time arrival percentage was 2003, when Salt Lake City had a remarkable 89.49 percent on-time percentage.

Year-to-year figures are difficult to compare, however, because over the last seven years the number of airlines that report statistics to the bureau has grown from nine to 20.

Comparisons aside, Salt Lake City's position is much better than other places — like the New York metropolitan area, for instance. There, Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, LaGuardia Airport in New York and John F. Kennedy Airport, also in New York, had the three lowest rankings for on-time arrivals. Those poor ratings led to a tongue-lashing this week from Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

"They should be world-class airports but they're not functioning as world-class airports," Schumer said, adding the delays could hurt the city's economy by discouraging tourism and business travel.

In Salt Lake City, political types are saying just opposite. Keith Christensen, a potential 2007 mayoral candidate and member of both the Salt Lake City Airport Board and the Utah Air Travel Commission, said the smooth operations help the city's economy.

"The city understands that (the airport) is one of the crown jewels of this region," he said. "Without it, the business community and the recreation community would not be as vibrant as they both are. Business people want to know that their people can be efficient in traveling."

Airport managers have taken steps to ensure timely flights by doing runway repairs in the middle of the night instead of during peak travel times, Christensen said.

Besides good managers, Christensen points to the FAA's air traffic controllers who are stationed in Salt Lake City.

"Not all controllers across the nation are created equally. Trust me," he said.

Megan Holbrook, chair of the Utah Air Travel Commission, agreed.

"We have a really good seasoned crew of air traffic controllers," she said.

Contributing: Associated Press