Has it come to this?Members of Congress flying incognito to avoid angry constituents sounding off to them about aviation gridlock?Well, not quite, although one congressman has quipped that he might need to go undercover. And with good reason. Last year was the worst ever for flight delays, up 20 percent over 1999, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. By the Department of Transportation's measure, 28 percent of flights were delayed, canceled, or diverted in 2000, inconveniencing 163 million passengers.
And those are just the double-digit figures. Delays on the tarmac before takeoff ("taxi-out" delays) of up to one hour increased 165 percent between 1995 and 2000, according to the DOT. During that same period, taxi-out delays of two, three, and four or more hours increased 217 percent, 289 percent, and 341 percent, respectively. The number of flights canceled or delayed more than 30 minutes 40 percent of the time soared by 340 percent.
THE SCHEDULING PROBLEM
It's no wonder that aviation policy-makers have shifted into crisis mode. Their first line of attack: scheduling at the nation's busiest airports. Although no one's talking outright re-regulation, on the subject of flight punctuality government officials have adopted a decidedly stern tone. After telling Congress that the airlines need to examine their scheduling practices, DOT inspector general Kenneth Mead added, "If self-discipline is not successful, the pros and cons of additional steps should be weighed." Among his suggestions: congestion pricing (charging airlines an extra fee for flights scheduled at the busiest times), slot lotteries (allocating a fixed number of airport slots to airlines, to limit the number of flights), and schedule committees (airport, airline, and government representatives meeting to coordinate timetables). In short, government intervention.
The likely blueprint for action is the FAA's Airport Capacity Benchmark Report, an analysis of scheduling and capacity at 31 of the nation's busiest airports. Unveiled in late April, the report calibrates the number of flights each airport can handle per hour, in good weather and bad. The FAA found what many had suspected. Most delays occur at a handful of airports—eight, to be exact. And at a few of these, airlines routinely schedule more flights than can be handled by the facilities, even in optimal weather.
Take Atlanta Hartsfield, the world's busiest airport. The FAA puts Atlanta's "good weather" capacity at 185 to 200 flights per hour; during bad weather, it drops to between 167 and 174. Yet for nearly two hours each day, Atlanta meets or exceeds its optimum capacity. The result: even on clear, windless days, 3 percent of flights at Atlanta are delayed. That figure doubles during bad weather. Similar patterns are found at Newark, Chicago's O'Hare, and New York's La Guardia, where flights are scheduled up to or exceeding good-weather capacity for an average of three, three and a half, and eight hours a day, respectively.