DELAYED: The Soaring Toll

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 27, 2008

For more than four hours, Doug Pinkham sat wedged in seat 19C of a Delta Air Lines jet as the plane inched its way through tarmac congestion caused by a winter storm that struck Atlanta's international airport on a recent night.

His cellphone and laptop batteries died, preventing him from doing any work. He finished a book, then a crossword puzzle. Mostly, though, Pinkham just stared at the seat in front of him or chatted with his wife. The plane finally left for Washington at 2:55 a.m. -- 7 1/2 hours late. Pinkham walked exhausted through his front door in Oakton at 5:30 a.m. Feeling fatigued, he skipped work that day, missing out on important meetings and phone calls. He estimated that his unexpected day off cost his nonprofit organization several thousand dollars.

"It's not just the delay that kills you," said Pinkham, president of the nonprofit Public Affairs Council in Washington. "It's the lost productivity at work. It's the missed meetings. It's the fact I have to deal with losing sleep and going through that ordeal and the fact it took me a couple days to recover."

While declining on-time performance rates have drawn the most public attention, an analysis of government data reveals another staggering toll of late flights: lost time and money.

During the first 11 months of last year, 1.6 million passenger flights were at least 15 minutes late. The total delay time added up to 170 years -- up steadily from 98 years lost on 1 million flights during all of 2003. The average delay of a late flight has grown from 49 to 56 minutes during that period, the data show.

With the U.S. economy stumbling, regulators and lawmakers are turning their focus to the economic toll of such delays. In a speech to the Aero Club of Washington on Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters estimated that flight delays cost the U.S. economy $15 billion a year. In an interview, she said she thought that figure was probably low.

"It is incredible," Peters said. "It means a loss to our economy, a loss to our productivity; it also means a loss in quality of life."

Peters, who often takes commercial flights, said delays can affect productivity even for passengers taking on-time flights.

The transportation secretary recently hopped on a 7 a.m. flight to New York to attend a 10 a.m. meeting with Mayor Michael Bloomberg. She said she could have taken a later flight but worried it might be delayed. In this instance, her flight arrived on time -- compelling the nation's top transportation official to mill about Gracie Mansion for an hour before she could see the mayor.

"It was absolutely not an efficient use of our time," she said. "There were lots of other things I could and should have been doing."

Fliers arriving at the nation's busiest airport, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, would probably agree. They endured the equivalent of 3,475 days of delay on late flights from January through November, according to an analysis of the latest data available from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Passengers arriving at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport lost more time: 4,619 days. The average late flight landed at O'Hare 62 minutes behind schedule.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company