Air Travel Delays: Bad, Getting Worse
FAA Blames Poor Weather, Traffic Congestion; Little Improvement Likely

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.

"I am so frustrated that I'm past anger," Wright-Lions said as she waited for her evening flight home.

Nancy Sturtevant, 69, and her husband, Peter, 72, were burrowing through a pile of bags at Dulles airport yesterday, looking for their luggage. They were returning home from a vacation in Alaska but had been delayed a day in Salt Lake City, where they spent the night in a motel, on their way home to Williamsburg, Va.

"Who do you get mad at?" Nancy Sturtevant said.

"It's hard to remember one day after the next after this hard a night," her husband added.

FAA officials said about 2,400 flights were delayed on Sunday and 2,000 on Monday. Traffic on those two days was 5 to 7 percent higher than on comparable days last year, FAA officials said. "There are a few key areas -- New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas -- that can really affect our system nationwide," said Robert A. Sturgell, deputy administrator of the FAA. "This summer has been particularly challenging in the weather patterns we have been seeing. When you combine that with the volume of traffic in the Northeast, it makes for a very difficult day in the system."

Airline executives described similar problems after storms no longer threatened their airports. US Airways struggled to get flights off the ground in Philadelphia even after the weather cleared, because controllers were having trouble integrating those flights into the heavy traffic flow into New York on Sunday and Monday, executives said.

"The analogy I like to use is that this is like normal rush-hour traffic," said David Seymour, vice president of operations for the carrier. "But this rush hour runs the entire day. When you have bad weather, it's like shutting down a couple of lanes."

To help ease traffic congestion in New York and the rest of the country, federal officials say they will soon roll out a redesign of the area's airspace, giving controllers and airlines more options when storms strike. They are also working on a new air traffic control system that will allow planes to fly more efficient, direct routes. That system is not expected to be operational for years, however.

Gordon M. Bethune, a former chief executive of Continental Airlines, said the system will ease delays, but he expressed frustration at the slow pace of deployment.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, he said, airline traffic plummeted and delays eased. "We should have used that time to build up infrastructure," Bethune said. Congress is considering legislation that would fund the FAA and its next-generation system, but passage is not certain.

Even if the new system is successful, some consultants are not sure it will do much good. While the new system may help speed traffic in the air, it will be difficult to build the runways needed to handle them or safely incorporate more flights flowing into the complex web of Northeast airports.

"There is just too much traffic," said Darryl Jenkins, a consultant. "I don't see anything changing for a long time."

Staff writers Xiyun Yang and Alejandro Lazo contributed to this report.

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