By Joe Brancatelli
February 20, 2013 --When the old United Airlines tried to merge into the old US Airways back in 2000, the entire business-travel community rose up and waged a year-long campaign to keep the carriers apart. Yet last week's 15-months-in-the-making announcement that American Airlines and US Airways would merge hardly raised our hackles.

Why the chillax indifference? Two reasons. This latest merger seemed inevitable after two earlier combinations (Delta & Northwest and United & Continental) began a consolidation that will leave virtually all of the nation's pre-deregulation "legacy" capacity in the hands of three big players.

More importantly, business travelers aren't complaining (much) because, at least comparatively, the nation's commercial airline system is running remarkably well. Arguably, things are operating better now than at any time since the nation's airlines were deregulated in 1978.

Sure, we pay too much—or think we do. Yes, coach fliers are wedged into less space now. And domestic first-class customers are no longer feted with Champagne and caviar. But we have strong, profitable, nationwide alternate options such as JetBlue Airways (NASDAQ: JBLU) and Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV), an admired niche player in Alaska Airlines (NYSE: ALK) and a flashy start-up (Virgin America) to level the playing field.

Besides, when it comes to the day-to-day grind of business flying, things are, well, not horrible. Planes take-off and land with near-record punctuality. Airlines lose less of our luggage. It's rare when they bump us off flights against our will. And as we saw--or, more accurately, didn't see--when a monster blizzard hit the Northeast earlier this month, airlines don't abandon us on snowbound tarmacs anymore and airport terminals aren't filled with bedraggled travelers sleeping in chairs or on the floor.

One airline executive I spoke to recently claimed with a straight face that we're living in a new Golden Age of business travel. He's probably hit his carrier's stock of liquor miniatures a little too hard, but the latest numbers from the Transportation Department's Air Travel Consumer Report kinda, sorta, maybe back up his contention. Last week's data dump, which covered the 2012 flying year, shows airlines are operating with flabbergasting efficiency.

In 2012, for example, the 15 major carriers and commuter airlines reporting data compiled an 81.85 percent on-time ranking. That is the third most timely percentage nearly two decades. The only years to do better were 2002 (82.14 percent) and 2003 (81.96 percent). The industry might have hit an all-time on-time high in 2012 if not for the United Airlines (NYSE: UAL) computer meltdown in March and American's dust-up with its pilots late in the summer.

The one thing all three years have in common is size—or, more precisely, lack of it. The airline industry was reeling after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and had dramatically downsized operations in 2002 and 2003. Ditto for 2012, when the airline industry's combined capacity fell to post-World War II lows.

The smaller-is-better mantra had another operational benefit. The industry as a whole cancelled just 1.29 percent of its scheduled flights. That's the second lowest number in 18 years, trailing only the 1.24 rate of 2002. If business travelers hate delays, we hate cancelled flights even more. So, once again, 2012 looked relatively golden.

Even better, the tough and punitive rules that the Transportation Department imposed in 2010 on carriers if they held passengers hostage on the tarmac for more than three hours have had their desired effect. Just 42 "long" tarmac holds were reported in 2012, the agency says. In the 12 months before the new rules went into effect (May, 2009 to April, 2010), there were 693 long holds. That 95 percent reduction was achieved without the massive cancellations predicted by infuriated airline bosses. Keep that in mind the next time an airline says it can't do right by customers because operational realities are too hard for us average folk to understand.

Another business-travel bugaboo--showing up at the airport with a valid ticket only to be "involuntarily denied boarding" (in other words, bumped)--is nearly licked. The 2012 bump rate of .99 passengers per 10,000 fliers was slightly higher than 2011's .77 rate, but it remains miniscule compared to the worst days of airline operations. The 2012 rate works out roughly to one passenger being bumped for every 66 Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 flights.

Airlines are even doing a much better job of not "mishandling" (industry jargon for losing) our checked luggage. The mishandled-bag rate in 2012 (3.09 reports per 1,000 passengers) was the lowest since the Transportation Department began tracking lost luggage in September, 1987. Skeptics claim the low rate is a byproduct of fliers drastically reducing the number of bags they check because most carriers now charge for luggage. But it's equally plausible that fewer bags are going astray because the carriers are more timely and less likely to cancel flights, which means fewer chances for a bag to be "mishandled."

Ironically, complaints against airlines filed with the Transportation Department soared in 2012. There were 15,335 complaints, an eye-popping 32.8 percent hike over the 11,546 filed in 2011. But we're not necessarily chronic complainers. It turns our that nearly 4,000 gripes, around a quarter of the total, were filed against United Airlines. That's logically attributable to the lingering service problems the world's largest carrier has had since the botched computer conversion in March.

Of course, the combined US Airways-American will displace United Airlines at the world's carrier. That, I suppose, doesn't auger well for the future.

So maybe we are in a sort of Golden Age of Frequent Flying. Or, perhaps, a Pyrite Age when we squint hard enough and order a second libation off the drinks cart.

ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2013 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.