WASHINGTON (AP) _ Fewer airline flights have been delayed this year compared with 2000, thanks in part to rerouting, schedule changes and good weather.
Preliminary Federal Aviation Administration statistics show the number of delays overall during the first half of 2001 dropped 5 percent from the same six-month period a year ago.
The FAA reported 197,859 operational delays between Jan. 1 and June 30, as compared with 207,319 during the first half of 2000. An operational delay is defined as any time a plane is delayed more than 15 minutes after the pilot requests permission to push back from the gate.
The improvement is more dramatic over the last four months. From March 1 to June 30, delays dropped by 10 percent over the same period in 2000.
``We have a good story to tell this summer,'' FAA Administrator Jane Garvey said. ``We _ and that means all of us _ are doing a better job serving our customers, serving the American people.''
Despite the overall improvement from last year, delays remain a substantial problem. At 11 of the nation's busiest airports, more than one-quarter of the scheduled flights arrive at least 15 minutes behind schedule, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported earlier this week. The worst airport was Seattle, where airport executives are trying to build a new runway.
Airlines have rescheduled some flights at major hubs to reduce delays at peak travel times. Some planes are flying short distances at lower altitudes. Others are flying through Canada or through air space once reserved for the military. A computer program allows controllers to increase the number of takeoffs at some airports in the crowded Northeast corridor. The FAA has significantly reduced the amount of time pilots are held on the ground without being given a time to take off.
And there have been fewer major storms, which play havoc with airline schedules. There were 13 percent fewer major storms in March and April than during the same two-month period a year ago. Weather accounts for around 70 percent of all delays, the FAA said.
Nevertheless, thousands of flights are still delayed each month, and airline officials say the problem will persist until there are more runways to handle planes on the ground and more modern equipment to guide the planes in the air.
``We will never be able to eliminate the problem of delays unless we expand capacity,'' said Carol Hallett, president of the Air Transport Association, the trade group for the major airlines.
The industry and its allies are trying to enlist President Bush and members of Congress to join the effort. At the end of a daylong conference on airline delays, Hallett and the heads of 12 other aviation organizations signed a letter asking the White House to make building new runways a national priority.
``The aviation system will slide into gridlock in the next decade if measures to increase and speed capacity improvements do not receive immediate attention and support,'' the letter reads.
White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said the president has declared his support for building new runways. ``This is a priority of the administration,'' she said.
John Carr, president of National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which cosponsored the conference with ATA, said the groups plan to back up the letter with phone calls and letters to lawmakers, and still-undetermined efforts to publicize their message.
``There are 670 million people who are going to fly this year. I think we have something to say to them,'' Carr said.
The issue of airline delays has captured the attention of key lawmakers, and two hearings are scheduled for next week. On Tuesday, a House Government Reform subcommittee will take its first look at the issue, and on Thursday, the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee will hold the latest in its series on the subject.