Airline and government officials begin a series of meetings this week aimed at reducing congestion and delays at New York's Kennedy Airport. We wish them luck.

The government is focusing on New York, and Kennedy in particular, because of the belief that airline overscheduling at Kennedy has led to increased delays at that airport, exacerbating airspace congestion in the greater New York area.

And, of course, what affects New York affects the entire country.

The government has numbers on its side. Only 63.3% of domestic flights at Kennedy left within 15 minutes of their scheduled departure during August, down from 72.1% a year earlier.

It is sometimes mentioned that on-time performance at nearby LaGuardia and Newark was just as bad.

Not so often is it mentioned that departure delays in August were nearly as bad at Chicago O'Hare, where the delay problem was allegedly "fixed" three years ago after a similar government-airline powwow.

We look forward to news from this week's meetings about measures to reduce delays at New York, and we expect to see results for the near term.

We're not so optimistic about the long-term prospects for the nation at large, however.          

It was precisely 20 years ago that the DOT, in response to growing restlessness about flight delays, started requiring the airlines to report their on-time performance. The first report covered September 1987 and the carriers averaged 77%, ranging from a high of 84.5% for American to a low of 67.3 % for US Airways.

Some details of the reporting rules were changed a few years later, making direct comparisons imperfect. But broadly speaking, things never got much better.

In the ensuing 20 years, only one major airline outside of Hawaii has managed to sustain an on-time average above 80%, and that is Southwest at 82.1%. The rest are in the mid- to high-70s.

The national average over 20 years is 78.4%. Over the last 12 months, it fell to 72.7%. It will be difficult, but not impossible, to gain back the lost 5.7 points, but that's probably as good as it's going to get.

If there's a lesson in the DOT's 20-year database of on-time performance, it's probably this: As much as we might want 90% or 100% on-time performance, we are "content" with less. In fact, 75% to 80% seems about right.

Over the last two decades, airlines and their passengers seem to have reconciled themselves to a universe where about 75% to 80% of flights arrive on time.

At that performance level, consumers have been reasonably satisfied with the trade-off: lots of flights to choose from at pretty reasonable fares, and a 75% to 80% chance of arriving on time.

When system on-time performance gets much worse than that, passengers grumble and the politicians begin to hear about it, as we have recently witnessed.

But improving on-time performance significantly above the industry's 20-year average will require schedule reductions, costly investments in new infrastructure and/or a system of peak-hour pricing that would charge the airlines for serving congested airports at peak times.

All those scenarios would raise prices, and experience has shown that given a choice between higher fares and lower fares, passengers choose the latter, even if it means a little delay.

Not a lot, but a little.  

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