Delayed, Not Canceled

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By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Heading home from Phoenix last month, Linda Brennan of Vienna had to endure a nearly five-hour wait for her United Airlines connecting flight to Chicago. Only one other flight was available: at 6 a.m. the next day.

So Brennan and many other United passengers bided their time. They waited two hours at the gate, 2 1/2 hours more aboard the aircraft on the tarmac. Some passengers were told it was weather. Others heard it was mechanical problem.

Whatever it was, Brennan missed every possible connecting flight from Chicago to Dulles International Airport that day. She wound up paying for a hotel room in Chicago and flying to Dulles the next day.

Brennan, a senior vice president of human resources at RSM McGladrey, was a victim of the airlines' improving fortunes. With a record 207 million passengers expected to fly this summer, the airline industry is on track for one of its best periods in years. But while the passengers are showing up, the airlines have fewer flights and aircraft to handle them. If a mechanical glitch occurs before takeoff, the carriers are increasingly unable to load passengers waiting for that flight onto another plane. The result: Travelers simply have to bear it, reading, toe-tapping, staring off into space.

"Flights that were canceled in the past won't be canceled. They will be delayed instead for however long it takes to fix the plane," says travel industry expert Terry Trippler of TerryTrippler.com. "You're going to see more flights operating at 2 a.m. than ever before. They have to get those planes out."

The airlines have cut domestic flights by 2.3 percent from last summer's level, according to the Air Transport Association. The nation's fleet size has shrunk by as much as 21 percent since 2000, largely the result of massive cutbacks at airlines such as Delta Air Lines, US Airways, United and Northwest Airlines, which all have spent time in bankruptcy court.

For passengers, the summer could turn out to be one of the worst periods for flight delays. In April, 78 percent of the nation's flights made it to their destinations within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival times, down from 83.4 percent in April 2005, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

The number of flights delayed in April was 431,831, the highest number for the month in the 11 years that the Bureau of Transportation Statistics has kept records on delays. The average length of delays increased to 50.3 minutes in April from 47.3 minutes a year ago.

Weather remains the No. 1 reason for delayed flights, thanks to summer thunderstorms, and airlines and passengers have little recourse but to wait until the weather clears. Airlines have more control over mechanical problems and could cancel flights but instead tend to delay them until the aircraft is fixed.

The airlines with some of the largest increases in delays include Continental Airlines, up 9.5 percent; United, up 9.4 percent; and Southwest Airlines, up 8 percent.

The number of canceled flights decreased. The airlines canceled 35,274 flights in April, the fewest for the month since 2002. Delta, United and Alaska Airlines were among those with the biggest declines in canceled flights.

"When you have fuller planes and when you do have a cancellation, there is no place to put these people. You have to get these flights out," says Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Caroline Boren.

Travelers have little recourse if their flight is delayed. Airlines can delay a flight as long as they deem necessary. Most carriers provide updates on the expected time of departure. Passengers who are stuck on board an aircraft also get updates, along with a nice, cold beverage.

Goodbye to Peanuts: US Airways says it will stop serving peanuts on its flights by the end of the month because of concerns about passengers who are allergic to the snacks.

US Airways spokesman Phil Gee said the airline has not determined what will replace the nuts, but it could be a cracker-type mix, he said.

Several airlines, including American and Northwest, long ago stopped serving peanuts and have passed out pretzels or other types of snacks instead. Southwest, one of the largest airlines that still offers peanuts, has no plans to get rid of them, said spokesman Ed Stewart. "They're a staple around here," he said.

Alaska Airlines said it was "reviewing" its peanuts policy.

Thurgood Marshall Tribute: Officials at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport today will unveil the newest display chronicling the life of the airport's namesake, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The permanent exhibit, which will be housed on the upper level of concourses B and C, will include photos, artifacts and a bust of Marshall.

Question of the Week: If you use an airline-sponsored credit card, what is the biggest purchase you have made just to earn frequent-flier miles, and what are the pros and cons of using the card to rack up miles? Send your comments to alexanderk@washpost.com . Please include your full name and a daytime telephone number.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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