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DELAYED: The Soaring Toll
Air Travel Woes Cost Passengers Time and Money

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.

Air travelers arriving and departing from Washington's three major airports suffered 4,897 days of late flights. About 1,077 of those days were spent sitting on the tarmac, waiting for flights to take off. The average late flight landing at the region's three airports arrived at least 51 minutes behind schedule, the data showed.

Delays at the three airports cost the regional economy about $267 million, according to a rough analysis of flight data by Stephen S. Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.

Despite advances in technology that allow workers to use laptops and send e-mails from cellphones or other portable devices, Fuller said, the economic cost was probably greater than his estimate. Delay data only captures time lost to flights, not passengers.

For example, it does not tally the effect on fliers who miss connections and then spend hours at airports trying to get on increasingly crowded planes. There is no way to measure how long passengers wait in security lines or how early they must now get to airports. The data does not tabulate how long passengers must mill about baggage claim areas waiting for luggage. It also does not account for the air traffic system's growing inefficiency; many airlines have increased scheduled flight times to compensate for snarls.

"You just have the tip of the iceberg here," Fuller said. "The cost of delays has mushroomed into the economy, hospitality industry, businesses in general. It is affecting how we work, the efficiency of the economy. These costs occur every year, and they are getting worse."

Transportation officials say they have taken steps to address delays. Among the measures is redesigning congested New York-area airspace and culling the number of flights allowed to land and depart from John F. Kennedy and Newark international airports. Regulators say congestion on New York tarmacs is a leading cause of delays that ripple across the country. The 10 worst well-traveled routes to and from Washington area airports in terms of on-time performance all link to New York's three major airports, the data analysis showed.

Government officials are working on long-term solutions, too, including the development of a satellite-based air traffic control system that should help increase capacity. But the system is still years away from full deployment, and bills that would help fund the program appear to be stalled in Congress.

In data analyzed by The Washington Post, one flight highlights how air traffic congestion has altered life for travelers: Continental Express Flight 1276, which departs from Dulles International Airport at 2:50 p.m. and is supposed to arrive in Newark at 4:15 p.m.

The flight was the nation's fourth-worst in terms of total time lost to delays during the first 11 months of last year. Passengers on the 37-seat regional jet, operated for Continental Airlines by regional carrier ExpressJet, endured 14 total days of late flights. The worst one: on June 28, the flight arrived 8 hours late. Flight 1276 was canceled at least 16 times, helping it post an on-time arrival rate of 47 percent.

The flight's delays cost the airline and passengers about $860,000 in lost time and productivity, according an analysis by Clifford Winston, an economist at the Brookings Institution who recently co-authored a paper with Steven A. Morrison for the American Economic Review that examines the costs of flight delays and potential remedies.

Other airlines also have badly delayed flights but often change schedules or flight numbers during the year, making it difficult to track the total costs of delays to specific flights.

A Continental spokesman, David Messing, blamed the flight's problems on air-traffic congestion in the New York area. He said that when jams occur there, the carrier often has to thin its schedule.

"When we evaluate which flights are subject to cancellation, we try to affect the fewest number of travelers that we can, so the smaller aircraft like 1276 are more likely to be canceled" or delayed, he said.

On a recent afternoon, their flight already an hour behind schedule thanks to bad weather in Newark, passengers on 1276 said they have been forced to adapt to delays.

One computer software executive said he books flights with extra layover time to ensure that he doesn't miss connections. An investment banker said he stumbles bleary-eyed to the airport to take the earliest possible departure to avoid delays that build through the day. A security consultant from northern New Jersey said he flew to Northern Virginia Sunday afternoon and paid for a hotel room rather than risk being late on a Monday morning flight.

Ricardo DaSilva Oliveira, 37, a California-based financial consultant with a major investment bank, was attending meetings in the Washington area and heading to Newark to catch a connection to Lisbon.

A frequent traveler, he estimated that he lost 100 hours to delayed flights in the last year. Such snarls caused him to miss a crucial meeting in South America to close a $600 million deal. Another firm won the contract, he said.

"We thought about suing the airline, but then realized we couldn't prove" that the delays derailed the account, Oliveira said, adding that he sometimes takes private jets for important meetings to reduce the chances of late arrivals.

Phil Lenge, a New Jersey tax consultant, looked at a magazine in reserved frustration. A few days earlier, his 7 a.m. flight from Newark to Washington was canceled, forcing him to grab one later that afternoon. The delay cost his firm about $4,000 in billable hours, he said.

"I am just happy I don't travel more often," he added. "This is no fun."

Sean White, a 36-year-old investment banker from Tenafly, N.J., has become so accustomed to delays that he often books two flights at different times to make sure he can escape town if one is delayed or canceled.

He had already started his day early -- at 4:30 a.m. to catch the earliest Newark-Dulles flight possible. The flight was on time, a surprise that forced him to wait 90 minutes for his meetings, he said

He was nervous about getting home in time to see his kids because their bedtimes were approaching. His flight left Dulles at 3:56 p.m. and arrived at its gate in Newark at 5:16, 61 minutes behind its published schedule. He felt lucky -- he got to see his kids.

"I took the same flights two weeks ago and it was two hours late," he said, getting him home too late to see his children before they went to bed. "I have come to expect delays, but I do my best to see how much I can minimize them. There has to be a better way to do things."

Staff researcher Sarah Cohen contributed to this story.

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