Flight Delays on Record Pace

Friday, August 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Record numbers of flight delays put thousands of travelers on hold last summer. The bad news: Things aren't getting much better.

Although delays dipped a bit last month, statistics for the first seven months of this year show an industry on track to surpass last year's record.

Those delays had set in motion months of efforts by politicians, regulators and the carriers to get planes moving on time.

"This is an issue that's complex," said Jane Garvey, administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration. "We wish there was a silver bullet. There is not."

From January through July 2000, the FAA said Thursday, delays are up 10.4 percent from the year-ago period. Making matters worse, labor problems at United Airlines Inc., the country's largest carrier, are wreaking havoc this month.

So far the only bright spot came Thursday, when the FAA announced that delays during July dropped 1.7 percent from the same month a year ago. However, July 1999 was the second-worst month for flight delays during the last 21/2 years.

To make matters worse, an increasing number of travelers are feeling the pain of delays. Airlines are filling on average as many as 80 percent of their seats, enjoying record traffic levels not seen in years.

For many travelers, flying now requires putting up with a lot of excuses in an environment where patience is already frayed.

Devin Fellows of Dallas recently flew United to Sturgis, S.D. She wound up waiting more than half an hour on each of the four legs of her trip.

"Initially, they told us the plane hadn't arrived yet," said the 31-year-old massage therapist. "Then they said the plane was refueling. Then they said they were checking the oil.

"I laughed. I figured they were just telling us whatever they could come up with."

For Judith Picken, an attorney with the Internal Revenue Service, driving proved to be a better alternative than flying. Determined to make it home for her 1-year-old grandson's birthday, she rented a car with two other women and drove 12 hours to Wheaton, Ill., from Washington, D.C., after nearly all United flights were canceled one day a few weeks ago.

The bad news about delays is reflected in sobering figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The number of consumer complaints soared 60 percent from January through June compared with the year-ago period. Although the Transportation Department also tracks delays, its figures for July have yet to be released.

Flight problems, primarily cancellations and delays, garnered the most complaints, followed by customer service and baggage problems. United, followed by American Airlines Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc., received the most complaints, but they also rank as the nation's three biggest carriers.

The FAA and airlines on Thursday vowed to work harder to eliminate the traffic snarls and other inconveniences.

"We know we have to do a better job, and we are trying to do it," said Peter Challan, the FAA's deputy associate administrator.

The government and airlines continue to blame poor weather, record numbers of travelers and a limited number of runways and airport gates for delays and cancellations. In July, thunderstorm warnings issued by the National Weather Service rose 10 percent from the year-ago month.

In addition, the number of takeoffs and landings at the nation's top 55 airports for the first seven months of this year increased 2.1 percent, or about 125,000 flights, compared with the same period a year ago, according to the FAA.

"As long as the number of takeoffs and landings keeps increasing, you are going to have delays," said FAA spokesman John Clabes. "The system is overloaded."

To be sure, the government is working to alleviate the problem. Since weather causes the majority of delays, the FAA is working to be able to manage such conditions more effectively. It launched a severe-weather plan in March to maximize use of available air space, add new technologies and work more cooperatively with airlines.

The agency also has become more proactive in addressing air traffic congestion, giving airlines advance notice of weather-related problems and other tie-ups. That contrasts with previous years, when the agency simply responded to day-to-day crises.

Airlines also are working to improve their operations by giving passengers more information in advance when flights are delayed and working more closely with the FAA to make faster decisions.

"All airlines are working on whatever we can do to help improve the situation," said Ross Holman, vice president of systems for Southwest Airlines Co. "A lot of time, consumers don't see what it would have been like without these efforts."

Still, with an already crowded air space at peak travel times, industry experts say delays and other travel woes are only likely to get worse as the number of travelers and planes increases.

"I don't think customer service will dramatically improve until we change some of the government-controlled infrastructure," said Dean Headley, a co-author of the annual Airline Quality Rating report and a faculty associate at the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kan.

If that's the case, travelers may now be entering a new phase of air travel, one marked by frequent delays during the busy summer months when the weather is most volatile.

In the last month, Jeff Steinhauer, a systems engineering manager who lives near Chicago, has experienced delays on nine of the 10 United flights he recently flew on. But because his company has a partnership with United, Mr. Steinhauer can't switch carriers.

"I'm going to be at United's mercy," he said Thursday while waiting for a plane to Chicago from Dallas. "Or to make sure I get back the day I need to, I might have to leave a day early."