Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article's headline incorrectly described the Delta flight as a shuttle. The shuttle is a specific flight between LaGuardia Airport and Ronald Reagan National Airport. A headline on a Nov. 13 article about a chronically late Delta Air Lines flight from New York to Washington incorrectly called the service a Delta Shuttle. It is part of the Delta Connection service.

Like Clockwork: Hour of Delay, Hour of Flight

Scott Logsdon, left, arrives from Delta Connection Flight 5283 after a delay made him late to meet his parents, Ken and Bea, at right, at National Airport. In September, the New York-D.C. flight departed late every time.
Scott Logsdon, left, arrives from Delta Connection Flight 5283 after a delay made him late to meet his parents, Ken and Bea, at right, at National Airport. In September, the New York-D.C. flight departed late every time. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 2006

Few things are certain in air travel today, but one comes close: If you're on Delta Connection Flight 5283 from New York to Washington, you can expect to be late.

The flight had the nation's worst on-time performance in September, arriving late 100 percent of the time at Reagan National Airport, according to a recent government report.

Its average delay: 1 hour and 19 minutes. Actual flying time: 53 minutes. Much of the delay is spent on the tarmac, waiting for other planes to take off at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Airline industry experts said the Delta Connection flight is an extreme example of the worsening delays infuriating air travelers these days. Through the first nine months of the year, 24 percent of flights were delayed or canceled, part of a steady increase since the comparable period in 2003, when 17.5 percent of flights were late or scratched, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, which tracks airline performance.

"There were 20 planes ahead of us for takeoff," said Scott Logsdon, 35, who on a recent night had already spent 12 hours on an international flight before hopping on the Delta Connection commuter jet. "I didn't have anything to read, so I just looked out the window and watched plane after plane take off ahead of us. It was kind of frustrating."

Many factors can delay a flight, particularly bad weather. But aviation consultants said broad industry trends were also behind the deteriorating performance, as passenger volume has increased but the number of flights has remained almost constant.

They blamed delays on the airlines trying to eke out profits by slashing jobs and reducing pay for mechanics and baggage handlers, who play crucial roles in getting planes out on time. Airlines also appear to be scheduling more flights during busy periods to better target business travelers who pay higher fares, which leads to gridlock on the runways and in the sky, industry experts said.

"We are experiencing some real operational problems in the industry," said Darryl Jenkins, an airline consultant. "The truth is you have a lot of problems going on."

The industry seems to be inching back to the severe delays experienced before the 2001 terror attacks, which caused air traffic to plummet, the experts said.

They warned travelers to expect delays during the upcoming holiday season.

"Much of the volume for November is really packed into three or four days," said Dean Headley, a marketing professor at Wichita State University and co-author of the annual "Airline Quality Rating" report. "Every seat is going to be full with somebody that has to be somewhere. . . . If there is the slightest glitch anywhere in the system, it can ripple through. There isn't much room for error."

For passengers, knowing which flights are often late can be difficult because the airlines generally don't publish such information. That can lead to frustration and confusion.


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