IT used to be that Philippine Airlines (PAL) was referred to only half-jokingly as 'Plane Always Late'. The carrier is now trying to throw 'Prompt At Last' back at its critics. While the Manila-based airline's record is still far from perfect, its 'on time performance' (OTP) out of Kai Tak airport has improved. It is not a situation unique to PAL. Airport records show OTP numbers for virtually all the major airlines serving Hong Kong's bursting-at-the-seams airport are up. Civil Aviation Department (CAD) chief planning officer Ng Ki-sing said: 'It is generally better, and mostly because of new measures put in place last year. 'There is a lot of emphasis placed by the airlines on being on time.' An aircraft is considered to have acheived OTP if it lifts off within 15 minutes of its scheduled departure time. Dozens of factors - but mostly queues at immigration and security checks, late arriving passengers and delayed incoming flights - can affect punctuality. Ever since many airlines serving Kai Tak hit low performances in 1992, OTP has become a major focus for improvement. The Orient Airlines Association (OAA), which represents 15 regional airlines, said its members were reporting positive gains at many airports in the Asia-Pacific region. PAL reported a 78 per cent OTP figure out of Kai Tak for the past three months. This was up from the estimated 60 plus per cent recorded during the same period a year before. PAL operates only limited flights out of Hong Kong, however, and its OTP out of Manila is still low - estimated to be in the 60s. Cathay Pacific Airways noted significant improvements out of Kai Tak - to 79.03 per cent last year from 73.74 per cent in 1993. The worst year for Cathay, 1992, saw a 69.23 per cent low. From April to September last year, OAA members reported a combined percentage of 69.56 per cent out of Kai Tak. Manila's international airport was ranked worst for OAA carriers, with a 65.77 per cent figure. Jakarta recorded the best average OTP, at 86.55 per cent. While the figures may not appear high, those in the know say that given the myriad of factors that can cause a plane to depart late, things have greatly improved. CAD airport general manager Albert Lam Kwong-yu said not only do the airlines want to improve performance - they have to. With the one-runway Kai Tak rated the third busiest airport in the world, recording more than 25 million passengers for the first time last year, a single aircraft's delay can cause a disastrous chain reaction. 'It is especially important at Kai Tak now because we are virtually at capacity, and aircraft that don't operate on time can make subsequent aircraft late,' Mr Lam said. 'If aircraft are late in the case of departures it affects the availability of parking bays of subsequent flights, and creates a bunching effect, which means the ATC [air traffic control] must keep planes up in the sky.' Cathay's manager of OTP and service delivery improvement, Paolo Ricciotti, said the push for OTP was motivated by financial considerations. A British Airways survey taken a few years ago estimated that each minute an aircraft was delayed cost an airline HK$3,800-$4,000. 'There are huge costs incurred from delays,' Mr Ricciotti said. 'Not only will we have to pay for accommodation expenses [if a passenger misses a connecting flight] and damage costs, the passengers hate delays and tell their friends about them or may not fly with us again. 'It can be a very costly problem.' Passengers may loathe delays, but airline officials say they are often the ones to blame for late departing flights. If a single passenger spends a few minutes more than appropriate duty free shopping or does not arrive at the gate, for example, his luggage must be off-loaded. Airline Operators Association president and Cathay Pacific airport manager Don Hunter said earlier check-in time restrictions of 40 minutes and earlier boarding time restrictions of 10 minutes imposed by all airlines last year had helped at Kai Tak. 'It is better, but there are still improvements that have to be made,' Mr Hunter said. It is arguable, though, how much smoother Kai Tak will get. The OAA said Government and airport procedures - such as immigration queues and security checks - were the cause of 31 per cent of delays last year. Although the CAD disputes the figure, it does admit some blame, Mr Ng said. He said the CAD and other Government departments were working closely with the airlines to overcome the problem. In April the Immigration Department will add 50 officers to its staff roster in a bid to shorten queues, but the effects are not expected to be significant and no more increases in staff are expected before the move to Chek Lap Kok in 1997 or 1998. With tardy passengers being one of the main problems, attention is now being turned towards educating passengers about checking in and arriving early at gates. Mr Ricciotti said delayed flights were not a problem that would go away once Chek Lap Kok was open. At Kai Tak, the average time to get from immigration control to the departure gates was 16 minutes. At the larger Chek Lap Kok, the same trip was expected to take 25 minutes. Meanwhile, PAL lost US$39 million in the first nine months of financial 1993-94, compared with a $22 million loss in the same period of 1992-93.