Air Travel Delays: Bad, Getting Worse

Christina Wright-Lions got to Dulles Airport two days late for a connecting flight to London.
Christina Wright-Lions got to Dulles Airport two days late for a connecting flight to London. "I am so frustrated that I'm past anger," she said. (By Tracy A, Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Douglas Stone's summer has felt like an endless flight delay.

The Darnestown biotech executive has been trapped in Tampa by thunderstorms. His family vacation to Aruba took an unexpected detour when his plane's weather radar died and it had to return to the United States. On a trip home from Dallas, thunderstorms and a tardy flight crew caused his flight to be canceled. He managed to find a ride on another carrier, finally landing at Reagan National Airport at 2:30 a.m. -- about eight hours after his scheduled arrival time.

"The entire process is anxiety-laden," said Stone, who was able to relax on a recent trip only by driving instead of taking a plane. "Flying is stressful enough. But if you have to worry about whether your flight is going to be on time, whether you are checking a bag, how you are going to make a connection -- this is significantly worse than it has ever been."

Stone is right. Federal statistics and data compiled by flight-tracking services show that delays are worse than ever before recorded. The first five months of the year rank as the worst in terms of delays -- 26 percent of flights were late or canceled -- since the Transportation Department began keeping such statistics in 1995.

The rest of this summer is not expected to be any better. Travel consultants and analysts say they wouldn't be surprised if data released next week by the Transportation Department reveals that the month of June and the first half of the year will be record-setters.

FlightStats, a company that analyzes FAA data, said only 69 percent of flights arrived on time in June. More than 20,000 flights were canceled.

There are many reasons for the problems.

The Federal Aviation Administration blames congestion and bad weather for the delays, which have been inching up for years as traffic recovered after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Former airline executives accuse the FAA of taking too long to develop and deploy the next generation of satellite navigation systems. Labor groups say airlines cut too many jobs to handle the increasing of traffic. Outside consultants say all those factors and others -- including jam-packed planes and labor unrest -- are responsible.

"It's really a combination of weather and increasing traffic," said Langhorne M. Bond, a former head of the FAA. "There is no one breakdown anywhere in particular in the system . . . There is less and less slack in the system to accommodate these kinds of things."

The past few days illustrate how problems can ripple across the country and cause major travel delays.

On Sunday and Monday, thunderstorms hit the Northeast. Flights between Washington and New York couldn't take off or land. Delays spread across the country because planes and flight crews stuck in the Northeast weren't reaching their destinations.

A passenger caught up in the delays was Christina Wright-Lions, 22, who was trying to get from New York to Washington to catch a flight home to London. Unable to get out of New York on Sunday or Monday, she finally caught a flight to Washington Dulles International Airport yesterday morning.

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