Late departures, later arrivals—anyone who's been on a plane recently knows flying is getting worse. Much worse. A look at the latest proposals for improvements
Ulla Puggaard
| Credit: Ulla Puggaard

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.

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.

Even before the FAA's report was released, overscheduling had prompted a flurry of government proposals. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has also suggested imposing congestion surcharges on the airlines, to encourage them to reduce the number of flights during busy times. On Capitol Hill, support is growing for legislation that would ease antitrust rules so airlines would be able to confer about cutting back peak-hour flights. Though government officials would oversee the process, there is still concern that such talks might significantly hinder competition, especially if smaller airlines and consumer groups aren't allowed to participate.

Pending legislation would also require airlines to warn customers about regularly scheduled flights that are late and/or canceled 40 percent of the time or more. (Currently, this information is given only when customers request it.) "People wouldn't take these flights if they knew they were excessively late," says Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project. Hudson also would like the FAA to make airlines eliminate "deceptively scheduled" flights, those that are late or canceled at least 80 percent of the time. The number of such flights jumped 390 percent last year, to 40,686 from 8,348 in 1999. Mead flagged this development in his congressional testimony this spring, but so far no one has addressed the problem.

Not surprisingly, airline lobbyists don't like the emphasis on scheduling. "Our goal is to shift the focus from short-term remedies to long-term solutions," says Michael Wascom, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the trade group that represents the major carriers. Still, ATA officials do acknowledge that overscheduling causes problems. And two carriers, Delta and American Airlines, have already revamped their hub schedules voluntarily, garnering praise from FAA administrator Jane Garvey and congressional leaders. Last fall, American rerouted nearly all its flights (more than 300) between Chicago's O'Hare and its spoke destinations. Instead of continuing to a different city after reaching the destination, each plane now returns to Chicago, to prevent delays there from reverberating around the country. Marty Heires, an American spokesman, says the airline has noted improvements in containing delays when there's bad weather in Chicago, but the carrier doesn't have official data.

In April, Delta altered schedules at its Atlanta hub, reorganizing some 1,000 flights. Like American at O'Hare, Delta's hourly flights from Atlanta to major cities now operate on an "out and back" basis, with the same planes flying back and forth between the two cities. "I strongly recommend that other airlines review what Delta did to see if similar measures can be considered," Representative John Mica, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Aviation Subcommittee, noted this spring.

Without action, the FAA predicts that serious delays will continue at six of the eight most congested airports, with Los Angeles joining the ranks in the next decade. Atlanta and Boston, for their part, are expected to do better, as new runways are completed by 2005. Such construction is often cited as one of the best longer-term strategies for reducing delays. Unfortunately, many airports simply have no room to expand: Newark, for example, would have to build on the New Jersey Turnpike. And airports that do have adjacent space often face opposition from environmentalists or anti-noise activists. Then there's the high cost, although Congress has authorized $10 billion over the next several years for airport improvements.

Rerouting flights to regional airports is the second most logical suggestion. "It's so obvious that we have this capacity," says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, a corporate-travel interest group. "But the airlines don't want to take flights away from their hubs." Together, the 31 busiest airports served 70 percent of passengers from October 2000 through March 2001, even though they account for just 6 percent of the country's 546 commercial airports. Some airports, such as Boston's Logan, have recently begun promoting nearby regional alternatives to cut back passenger volume.

It has become a cliché in the aviation industry to say there's no silver bullet for reducing delays—especially in a system that will have to handle 1 billion passengers by 2010 (up from an estimated 682.4 million this year). There is no lack of ideas, however: using bigger planes to reduce the number of flights; allowing planes to fly physically closer together; making better use of Global Positioning System technology, so pilots can navigate the skies more independently; encouraging airlines to keep more spare planes in reserve; even privatizing the air traffic control system, as in Canada. Yet each of these proposals could take several (or more) years to be realized, given the complexities of federal regulations, never mind public concerns about both convenience and safety. As the DOT's Mead told Congress this spring: "For solutions to improve capacity, we can expect only limited, or no, bottom-line relief over the next few years." And so changes in scheduling practices are our best hope for the immediate future.

As for the next move from Washington, at least good old-fashioned self-interest is at work. "The people who will be passing legislation are furious, because they have to fly every week," observes one congressional staffer. In the meantime, it's probably better not to ask how someone's flight was this summer. Just in case.

According to the FAA, the following eight airports accounted for the bulk of delays in the U.S. from October 2000 through March 2001. Figures represent the number of delayed flights per 1,000. When possible, we've listed alternate regional airports with fewer delays.

1. New York La Guardia 155.9
Alternatives: Westchester County (White Plains), Stewart International (New Windsor, N.Y.), MacArthur (Islip, N.Y.)

2. Newark 81.2
Alternatives: Atlantic City International, Stewart International (New Windsor, N.Y.), Lehigh Valley International (Allentown, Pa.)

3. Chicago O'Hare 63.3
Alternatives: Chicago Midway, General Mitchell International (Milwaukee, Wis.), Greater Rockford

4. San Francisco 56.8
Alternatives: Oakland International, San Jose International

5. Boston Logan 47.5
Alternatives: Worcester Regional

6. Philadelphia 44.5
Alternatives: Atlantic City International, Lehigh Valley International (Allentown, Pa.)

7. New York JFK 38.8
Alternatives: Westchester County (White Plains), Stewart International (New Windsor, N.Y.)

8. Atlanta Hartsfield 30.9
Alternatives: None less than a three-hour drive

The FAA cites the following reasons for flight delays in 2000. "Volume" is FAA-speak for overscheduling; "runway" means a runway was unavailable because of maintenance or construction.

Weather 68.7%
Volume 14.0%
Runway 5.9%
Equipment 2.1%
Other 9.2%