United States airlines received fewer complaints from passengers in the first quarter of this year than in the same period of 1988, the Department of Transportation reports.

The department also said, however, that airlines did not do as well in February this year as they did last year when it came to arriving on time, mainly because the weather was worse.The department's monthly air travel consumer report showed consumer complaints against leading airlines totaled 970 in March, down 63 percent from the 2,651 received in March, 1988, and 15 percent from the 1,138 reported in February of this year.

Complaints for the first quarter of 1989 totaled 3,207, compared with 8,633 in the first quarter of 1988.

The 13 largest domestic carriers reported that 72.4 percent of their flights operated on time in February, compared with 76.7 percent in January and 74.7 percent in February, 1988.

The department said the increase in delays was due largely to winter weather conditions. Delays caused by mechanical problems are not counted in compiling the data.

Mishandled baggage reports against carriers in February declined, averaging 7.36 per 1,000 passengers compared to 7.86 percent in January and 8.75 in February 1988.