By Joe Brancatelli
August 14, 2014 --Business travelers have taken it on the proverbial chin as U.S. carriers have marched to historic profits in the last 18 months. Carriers have trimmed frequent-flier benefits, smashed coach seats closer together, raised fees, reduced service and schedules and generally made our lives hell in the skies.

But nothing is as destructive to our intricately and densely scheduled lives on the road as the airlines' decision to swap on-time performance for profits. As their red ink has disappeared, so has any pretense that published flight schedules are a realistic depiction of their daily operations.

According to figures published last week by the Department of Transportation (DOT) and analyzed by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), on-time performance during the first six months of 2014 was among the worst in the last 20 years. The industry's six-month on-time average of just 74.17 percent was made even drearier the average flight cancellation rate of 3.3 percent, worse than all but three of the last 20 years. If all that wasn't bad enough, June's on-time rating of 71.8 percent ranked 204th of the last 234 months tracked by the government.

Want the hideous cherry on top of this operational collapse? Chicago's O'Hare Airport, the only place in the nation where two major airlines maintain competitive domestic hubs, operated at just 59.61 percent on-time in June. That worst-in-the-nation performance wasn't a one-off, either. For the first six months of the year, more than one third of all flights at O'Hare ran late, also the national standard of flying futility.

In the airlines' defense, feeble as it may be, the weather in the first half of the year was notably awful. Serial snow and ice storms hobbled travel during the winter. Wind, rain and thunderstorms pelted air lanes in the spring.

Still, airlines have done nothing to improve the on-time situation and they're actively planning to make things worse. United and American airlines, already the poorest performing legacy carriers, are planning to "re-bank" their hub airports in the coming months. That means they will schedule arrivals and departures at the same time rather than spread operations over the course of an hour. Airlines claim "banked" hubs generate more revenue, but history has shown banked hubs also create longer and more intractable delays. Worst of all, American and United are the incumbents at O'Hare and their moves to bank the nation's most delay-prone airport will only lengthen delays there.

Is there any way to avoid the delays? Can a schedule-savvy flier beat the system and fly on schedule? Maybe if you fly tactically.

When possible, avoid commuter or regional flights, which are operated for the big airlines by independent airlines using smaller aircraft. The nation's worst-performing airlines are both commuter carriers. Envoy, the American Airlines subsidiary formerly called American Eagle, ran just 62.2 percent on-time in June. ExpressJet, which flies commuter service for Delta, United and American, was little better at 65.1 percent. And of the 234 flights that the DOT labeled "chronically delayed" during the second quarter, 191 were operated by Envoy, ExpressJet or SkyWest, which flies for US Airways and Alaska Airlines as well as United, American and Delta.

Avoid the worst-performing hubs on a connecting itinerary. Salt Lake City, a hub for Delta Air Lines, operated at 84.42 percent on-time in June, 35 points above O'Hare in Chicago. Detroit Metro Airport, another Delta hub, operated at nearly 81 percent on-time. Charlotte, a US Airways hub, and Seattle-Tacoma, the home of Alaska Airlines, are also good bets for on-time arrivals. Musts to avoid beside O'Hare? American's Dallas-Fort Worth hub (68.6 percent); United's Newark hub (65.7 percent); Delta's hub at New York's LaGuardia Airport (65.4 percent); and United's San Francisco hub (64.7 percent).

Fly early in the day if you can. The dichotomy between the timeliness of early flights and late afternoon and evening flights is startling. And it's true regardless of the airport you use or the airline you fly. That's because the airlines use convoluted systems to fly during the day. And that means delays cascade geographically from East to West and build as the day wears on. Without exception, if you can fly early, you have a better shot at flying on time.

Want some examples?

Delta's gargantuan hub at Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport operates at 78.9 percent for arrivals. But that's the day-long average. When you look at hour-by-hour ratings, the differences are stark. Fly on a plane scheduled to arrive before 2 p.m. and you have an 85-to-92 percent shot at being on time. Between 5 and 6 p.m., however, arrivals slump below 71 percent and fall into mid-60s between 6 and 10 p.m.

United's Denver hub has a 73.6 percent overall on-time rating. But arrive before 2 p.m. and your chances of being on-time soar to at least 82 percent. Arrive after 3 p.m., however, and you have at least a one-in-three chance of being late. Between 7 and 9 p.m., your chances of an on-time arrival are no better than 50-50.

Even at dreary O'Hare in Chicago, you have a decent shot at on-time arrival if you schedule early. Before 11 a.m., in fact, your odds are three-out-of-four or better. By 3 p.m., you're down to 50-50 and, between 6 and 10 p.m., fewer than four in ten flights arrive on schedule.

Finally, do your homework. The DOT's monthly Air Travel Consumer Report is not only an airline nerd's dream, it is also packed with actionable information for schedule-obsessed business travelers. On-time data is sliced and diced in a variety of useful way. You can check by carrier and by airport, complete with hourly performance of more than two dozen of the nation's busiest facilities. The nation's worst-performing flights are specifically shamed if they are chronically delayed for two or more consecutive months.

And, remember, the time you save is your own. The airlines don't care about your schedule, but you should.

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 2014 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.