Most people haven't the foggiest idea who Alphonse Karr was, and that's a shame, because he's the 19th century French writer who came up with the unofficial motto of the travel industry: "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

We were reminded of Karr when we read the news that airline on-time performance last year rose to a six-year high. That "high," however, was a mere 79.5%. In most high schools, that would be a C-plus at best.

And, in fact, it is not much higher than the airline industry's 78.2% cumulative average, compiled over the 23 years since the DOT began keeping records.

One way to approach these data is to look at the on-time performance window framed by the best and worst carriers. During 2009, the major mainland carriers (this omits sunny Hawaii and the regional operators) posted on-time performance ratings between 75.8% and 83%, a 7-point window. The eight major carriers that have been around since the reporting regime began in 1987 have averaged, over that time period, between 75.9% and 81.9%, a 6-point window.

It should also be noted that the 81.9% is Southwest's 23-year average. Every other airline old enough to have a 23-year average is below 80%, i.e., a C.

Taking the long view, and considering that published elapsed times are now longer than they were 23 years ago, about the kindest thing that can be said about airline on-time performance is that it hasn't gotten much worse over the last two decades, but hasn't gotten appreciably better, either. As Karr put it, "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose."

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