Senate Mulls Causes of Air Delays

Wednesday, July 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — This summer's most common blame game — Whose fault is the airline delay mess? — has made its way to a Senate subcommittee.

``When it comes to getting to the bottom of delays, the air is thicker with accusations than with aircraft,'' Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said Tuesday as his Appropriations transportation subcommittee took on the question.

This summer has been marked by record delays, with planeloads of people forced to sit for hours on runways while others find themselves stranded, their flights canceled.

The airlines blame the air traffic control system. The Federal Aviation Administration blames bad weather and equipment problems. Air traffic controllers blame the airlines for scheduling too many flights at the same time.

``Passengers just know the simple truth that air travel is costly, unpleasant and less reliable than they would like it,'' Shelby said.

FAA figures show 48,448 delayed flights in June, a month of repeated heavy thunderstorms in the Midwest. That was up from 41,602 delays in June 1999.

But that's not the half of it, said Kenneth Mead, inspector general of the Transportation Department. The statistics aren't reliable, he contended, because delays are far more numerous than reported.

If an airplane leaves its gate within 15 minutes of the scheduled time, that counts as leaving on time ``even if it then sits on the runway for three hours,'' Mead said.

And those long waits on the runway aren't always the fault of weather or air traffic controller delays, he said.

The airlines schedule more planes for popular takeoff times than can be accommodated, knowing there will be a wait, he complained. Then, to get listed as on-time, they pull away from the terminal, get in line and sit.

In addition, Mead said airlines have changed their anticipated flight times — for example, listing one that used to take 90 minutes as now taking two hours — to reduce the number of late arrivals.

If the airlines were using scheduled flight times they used in 1988, late arrivals would be 25 percent higher than they are now, he said.

The subcommittee's witness list originally included Carol Hallett, president of the Air Transport Association, which represents the nation's major airlines. The ATA said Hallett was out of town and could not attend.

ATA spokesman Dave Fuscus, in a later telephone interview, pressed the industry view that the delays are largely the fault of an antiquated air traffic control system.

He said the airlines lengthened their scheduled air times to reflect the reality of a system that cannot move traffic faster. As to leaving the gate when they know there is a wait to take off, he said: ``If there is a line to take off, you want to get in line as soon as you can.''

FAA Administrator Jane Garvey said while bad weather is the most common cause of delays, other reasons include inoperable runways, airport capacity limits, aircraft maintenance and crew problems, as well as air traffic equipment problems and procedures.

``Delays will never be eliminated,'' she said, but the goal is to minimize them.

Edward Kragh, an air traffic controller from Newark, N.J., contended that ``airlines have embarked on a well-financed campaign of misinformation blaming air traffic control for their delays.''

``As long as the airlines continue to overbook runways, especially during peak hours, air traffic delays will continue and passengers will wait,'' he said.

Shelby condemned the ``hurry up and wait'' mentality that pervades air travel:

``We're told to get to the airport at least an hour before flight time — only to wait in line to be processed.

``We're told to be at the gate at least 20 minutes before flight time or our seat will be forfeited — only to wait in line to be herded on the plane like domesticated animals.

``We're told to be belted in our seats five minutes before the scheduled departure — only to pull away from the gate and be held hostage until the airlines' real schedule or the system can accommodate us.''


On the Net: Federal Aviation Administration:

Transportation Department Inspector General:

Air Transport Association:

National Air Traffic Controllers Association: