When mother nature acts up, air traffic grinds to a halt. Can a new plan from the FAA and the airlines help travelers arrive on time?
John Neubauer/ FPG

If you weren't stranded at a U.S. airport last spring or summer, consider yourself lucky. Between April and August 1999, there were nearly 200,000 air-traffic delays, an increase of 36 percent over the same period in 1998. In July alone, delays jumped 76 percent. Disturbed by the increase, Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama asked the Department of Transportation to investigate the causes. The primary culprit?According to the DOT, more than two-thirds of the delays were caused by bad weather.

Although the Federal Aviation Administration holds Mother Nature responsible—thunderstorm activity was up 20 percent last year over the average for the previous five years—by summer's end several airlines were publicly blaming the FAA for mismanaging air traffic during storms. Then, in an unusual twist, the finger-pointing turned to brainstorming: the FAA and the airlines (along with the pilots' and other unions) concocted Spring-Summer 2000, an initiative unveiled by President Clinton in March that aims to reduce delays by revamping the way air traffic is coordinated during severe weather.

"Last year was embarrassing," admits Ron Morgan, the FAA's director of air traffic. "Basically, we would react to weather. We'd scramble to move aircraft into the proper positions, away from convective weather [thunderstorms]. The goal this year is to be proactive."

For starters, the FAA has consolidated authority at its Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Herndon, Virginia. Previously, decisions could come from any of the FAA's 20 regional offices, a system that airlines often found confusing. The FAA has also been holding more frequent teleconferences, rather than communicating with command centers on an as-needed basis, so it can develop a game plan during crises for the entire country.

But the Spring-Summer 2000 plan goes even further. These are its key elements:

• The FAA and the airlines are finally using the same forecast. In the past, the FAA relied on National Weather Service data, whereas the airlines employed their own meteorologists. That often made weather-related exchanges an exercise in conflict resolution. Information is now pooled in a program called the Collaborative Convective Forecast Product.

• Once-restricted airspace has been opened up for rerouting. Canada agreed to provide additional northern access for commercial jets; the U.S. Navy also released airspace over the Atlantic Ocean for use when storms disrupt the heavy traffic along the East Coast. Moreover, the plan lets planes approach certain airports at lower altitudes, allowing them to fly beneath severe weather instead of through it.

• A new Web site, www.fly.faa.gov, is the program's most tangible asset. Managed by the FAA's central command center, the site contains real-time, specific information on flight status at 40 airports. For each airport, there's a summary of delays by destination, as well as general departure and arrival delays. One important caveat: the site does not include airline-related tie-ups due to mechanical, crew, or other problems.

Sounds pretty good, right?Many industry watchers, however, consider the Spring-Summer 2000 plan a mere Band-Aid for a complex problem. And, given nature's unpredictability, no one's making any promises. "This is not a silver bullet," FAA chief Jane Garvey said when the plan was announced. Robert Frenzel, senior vice president of operations and safety at the Air Transport Association (the airlines' trade group), agrees. "We're not going to stop thunderstorms," he says. "We'll still have the same challenges."

Even if delays persist, though, they should be delays with a difference. Under the plan, both the FAA and the airlines have pledged to give passengers more timely and accurate details about holdups. "This year, we hope to get better information to the customer," Frenzel says. What's more, all of the FAA's regional air traffic centers have been operating at near capacity this summer. (In contrast, last year centers in New York, Cleveland, and Chicago, which form a contiguous patch of airspace, were installing new hardware, which slowed air traffic.)

So there may be hope for fewer delays—or at least more orderly ones. Preliminary results available at press time were far from encouraging: weather-related delays actually increased in March and April, the first two months of the Spring-Summer 2000 plan.

Of course, arriving safely is paramount. "In many cases we create delays, because we are responsible for safety," says the FAA's Morgan. Weather plays a role in about one-quarter of all fatal aviation accidents, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, such as the crash last June of an American Airlines flight that attempted to land in Little Rock, Arkansas, during a thunderstorm, resulting in the deaths of 11 people. It's an important element to remember, since when it comes to flying in poor conditions, the adage holds truer than ever: Better late than never.

Weather is unpredictable, but there are ways to reduce the chances of being held up by bad conditions. First, try to fly at off-peak hours from non-hub airports (they tend to operate under capacity); a storm won't slow things down as much. Also, avoid airports—such as San Francisco's—that have frequent weather problems. Before heading out, consult www.fly.faa.gov and call your airline to see if storms at home or in the city your plane is coming from might cause a late departure. If you learn your flight is delayed after you've arrived at the airport, find out where the tie-up is occurring—it may make sense to rebook on another flight.