There’s no faster way to travel, but with delays reaching an all-time high, flying the busy skies is taking more time than ever. For the first eight months of this year, one in four flights landed at least 15 minutes late and cancellations are en route to smashing the record set in 2000.
Bad weather is often the catalyst for delays, but the real underlying problem is an aviation network being pushed past its capacity. "Overscheduling of busy airports is the leading cause of the spike in delays this year," says Doug Church, a spokesperson for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, based in Washington, D.C.
The association looked at one typical day at Newark Liberty International Airport: Wednesday, September 5, 2007. There were 57 flights scheduled to leave from 9 to 10 a.m.—even under perfect conditions, the airport can handle only 45 departures. As a result, 12 were sure to be delayed or cancelled before the day had even begun.
The bottleneck affects not just Newark but airports nationwide. "When there’s congestion in New York, it’s felt throughout the country," explains Paul Takemoto, a spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration.
The number of travelers in the country is set to balloon from 740 million last year to 1 billion by 2015. "One of the reasons why passengers are being so inconvenienced is because the skies are too crowded," President Bush said at a meeting with transportation officials in late September.
To combat congestion, the White House is considering flight scheduling caps at JFK and higher landing fees during peak hours. In the meantime, here are the airlines and airports to applaud or avoid, as well as our tips for reducing your risk of delays.
Hawaiian and Aloha hold the top spots for on-time performances. This is, in part, because the carriers don’t have to deal with the same extreme weather conditions that other carriers face, and they don’t serve the worst airports in the country. On the other hand, Atlantic Southeast has the most room for improvement, and US Airways is the largest carrier to make the Worst list.
1. Hawaiian* 92.9%
2. Aloha 92.5%
3. Southwest 80.1%
4. Frontier 78.9%
5. Airtran 75%
1. Atlantic Southeast 63%
2. Comair 66.3%
3. US Airways 67.8%
4. Jetblue 67.9%
5. American Eagle 68.5%
* Figures indicate the percentage of flights that departed on time from September 1, 2006, to August 31, 2007.
Delays create more delays. To dodge the domino effect, you should fly early in the day at most airports, and avoid the late afternoon and evening rush hours. For tips tailored to the 29 busiest domestic airports, visit Avoiddelays.com, which offers advice straight from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. If you’re traveling via La Guardia, for example, go between 11 a.m. on Saturday and 4 p.m. on Sunday, when passenger volume is at its lowest. For international flights out of Los Angeles International, it’s best to depart between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m.
Check track records
Be sure to look at particular flights before you book a ticket. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ Web site, bts.gov, provides historical on-time figures for carriers and airports and also issues reports that highlight the tardiest routes of the month.
Opt for nonstop flights
If that’s not possible, allow ample time to make connections. In volatile weather, even a leg of a direct flight can be delayed or cancelled, and when many planes are now flying at nearly 100 percent capacity, it becomes difficult to rebook on another flight. One positive change: if you miss your connection, some carriers (including US Airways and Northwest Airlines) now allow you to purchase tickets or change reservations directly on a Web-enabled cell phone or PDA.
Sign up for updates
Flightstats.com tracks, analyzes, and predicts the performances of flights worldwide. It can also send alerts to your cell phone for particular flights, so you’ll know right away if yours is late, cancelled, diverted—or even if it has, surprise! arrived on time.
Number of long (over two-hour) tarmac delays by month, at U.S. airports from September 1, 2006 to August 31, 2007
Jetblue’s infamous 2007 valentine’s day weekend disaster, with planes stuck on runways for hours, threw the spotlight on tarmac wait times and helped fuel interest in a passengers’ bill of rights. (JetBlue voluntarily adopted one on February 20.) But the carrier is not alone; nearly 10,000 flights each year spend over two hours waiting on the runway before departing. Perhaps not surprisingly, the problem peaks during the height of the summer travel season, while April—after winter, but before summer storms—has the fewest tarmac delays.
No matter how carefully you plan—picking the best hour of the day to fly, avoiding the most congested airports—if you travel frequently, a delayed flight is almost inevitable. The Web site Sidestep.com offers ideas on what do with that time (besides browsing the same kiosk over and over) with its new series of airport guides. By the end of the year, Sidestep’s library will include 150 international and domestic airports. The interactive guides have sections with information on parking, restaurants, stores, and transportation. Hungry?Browse the restaurant section, organized by terminal and type of cuisine. Looking for a last-minute gift?You can quickly locate the nearest Christian Dior or Swarovski outlet. The Web site also allows you to monitor flight status to determine when your flight is arriving or departing and how long it is delayed. An extra the site lacks, however, is a flight-alert feature, so sign up for one with your carrier if you want to be contacted via text or e-mail regarding schedule changes.
Adam Baer looks at the FAA’s NextGen navigation system
Flight delays are due not just to extreme weather and overscheduling by airlines but also to America’s antiquated air traffic control (ATC) system, which still operates on ground-based radar technology that dates from the 1930’s. ATC detects America’s planes once every 12 seconds on its radar. That means there’s a lot of room for controllers to lose sight of an aircraft. Given that reality, the FAA requires significant distance between planes for safety: a buffer zone of three to five miles in good weather, and more in a storm. The problem, however, is that while maintaining these buffers wasn’t a problem when the radar system was designed, there are many more planes in the sky these days. In 1970, there were 2,500 commercial planes and 1,800 corporate jets in America’s airspace each day; today there are 8,000 commercial planes and close to 18,000 corporate jets. As a result, the system moves slower, planes must fly convoluted paths, and travelers have learned to expect delays.
Yet there’s been a technical solution for using the sky more efficiently for close to a decade: a satellite-based GPS system called Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B), the centerpiece of the NextGen program. (Yes, your rental car’s navigation system may employ more advanced satellite technology to get you to your hotel than the plane that flew you to your destination.) Currently, a satellite-based technology called Required Navigation Performance helps some airlines at select airports. But NextGen, scheduled to be fully deployed by 2025, promises to locate planes precisely, straighten airline paths, and get pilots and air traffic controllers on the same page—or the same screen. Planes can then fly closer to each other. Runway landing capacities will increase by an estimated 25 percent, allowing for landings every 45 seconds. Traffic jams and delays will decrease. And pilots will enjoy increased awareness of neighboring aircraft.
"It will completely change the way we fly," says David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an industry trade group. "Everything in the skies will soon move as efficiently as it should."
Why has the technology taken so long to come to the forefront when even new cell phones offer turn-by-turn directions—and why will it take so long to implement?"NextGen is a viable program, technically speaking," says Mark Hansen, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. "The hard part is policy: getting airlines, for example, the technology they need to use the system and getting procedures in place so that the benefits can actually be realized." There is also the need to upgrade many of the 380 American ATC towers with satellite sensors (the ADS-B system will, however, require fewer towers than the current radar system). "Satellite navigation can adjust airport capacity with certain procedures, to some extent," says Hansen. "But it’s only going to provide limited impact compared with capacity increases needed to accommodate future demands. Right now we need two times what we have in airport capacity."
According to Castelveter, the first step is for Congress to approve a budget that fairly distributes the costs of NextGen between commercial and corporate aviation. "While the price is significant—it will cost the FAA $15 to $20 billion to build the necessary infrastructure, and carriers will have to invest $15 billion to equip aircraft—it looks like we will soon have a plan to move forward."
Optimistic?Perhaps. But for frequent fliers sick of delays, waiting 17 years for major improvements won’t be easy.
Fast fact: Since 2001, the price of the average domestic plane ticket has declined by 10 percent…
Delays may be a perennial travel pitfall, but in addition to the NextGen system, the FAA has other high-tech solutions that they hope will help curb the rising rates. Among them is adaptive compression software, launched this March, which continuously scans for vacant time slots at airports, and then fills them. In the past, when slots were freed up by cancellations, delays, or rerouting, airlines had no way of finding out and taking advantage of the available space.
Airspace flow programs, which minimize climate-related backlogs and congestion, have also been rolled out at 11 more locations in the South and Midwest this year. They let carriers choose between waiting out a storm or flying around it so that it’s not necessary to ground every flight at an airport because of bad weather.
With the goal of slashing delays 20 percent by 2011, the FAA has also reorganized 31,000 square miles of East Coast airspace. The new plan will soon enable planes in New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia to take off in multiple directions on new flight paths, making departures far more efficient at airports that have often been at the bottom of the list when it comes to on-time records.