Summer's Flight Plan: Delays and Rising Fares

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By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Passengers are likely to face higher fares, packed planes and a continuation of headache-causing flight delays this summer, according to outside analysts and a trade group that represents major air carriers.

The trade group, the Air Transport Association, presented a bleak summer travel forecast yesterday. The group's president, Jim May, would not say whether he expected delays to be as bad as last summer but noted that the coming months "will be very challenging."

With airlines struggling with sky-high fuel bills, higher fares this summer were "inevitable," May said. He added that planes would be as jammed as last summer because carriers are reducing flights to cope with the rising fuel costs. Those flight reductions will more than offset a predicted 1 percent dip in passenger traffic, May said.

Major carriers have raised fares, even as they have cut flights.

Tom Parsons, chief executive of BestFares.com, a discount travel Web site, said fares for summer travel are up about 20 percent over last year. Some fares, many of which include fuel surcharges, are twice as high as last year, especially on routes where major airlines do not have low-cost competition, Parsons said.

Besides increasing ticket prices, airlines have added new fees and increased existing ones. The new fees include charging passengers $25 to check a second bag and raising the price for changing an itinerary.

"They have done everything they can think of to nickel-and-dime us this summer," Parsons said.

The high fuel costs -- a barrel of jet fuel costs about 70 percent more today than it averaged in 2007 -- have led several carriers to seek bankruptcy protection. Executives at Northwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines cited high fuel prices as one reason for a proposed merger.

More expensive fares aren't the only difficulties facing passengers. Flight delays are likely to continue at high levels this summer, according to analysts who track the industry.

Last year, airlines posted their second-worst on-time performance since 1995, federal statistics show.

This year, the trend looks as though it is continuing. Flight delays were slightly worse during the first four months of the year than last year, according to FlightStats, a flight tracking Web site. Through early May, about 28 percent of flights were delayed or canceled, FlightStats reported.

May said carriers were doing everything they could to reduce delays because they are so costly. His group estimates that delays will cost the airlines about $10 billion this year, up from $8 billion in 2007. "It's in our best interest to minimize those delays," he said.

About 25 percent of flights arriving at the Washington region's three major airports have been late this year, FlightStats reported. Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport performed the best: 78 percent of flights arrived on time. Arrivals at Dulles International Airport were most often late: About 28 percent were delayed or canceled, FlightStats reported.

The airlines and the federal government say they have taken steps to address delays this summer, which are often compounded by thunderstorms and other severe weather. The Transportation Department has focused on the New York area, where a complicated and congested network of airports and airspace causes delays that snowball through the country, many analysts say.

Concerned about rush-hour congestion on New York-area runways, regulators and the airlines worked out voluntary hourly caps on flights at Newark Liberty and John F. Kennedy international airports. Although regulators say that those caps will reduce delays nationwide, outside analysts and government investigators remain skeptical.

Despite the caps, daily volume at both airports is scheduled to be higher this summer than last, according to the Transportation Department's inspector general, Calvin L. Scovel III. In a report to Congress last month, Scovel wrote that "caps do not necessarily translate into significant reductions in delays or an increase in airline on-time performance."

Martin Lauth, an assistant professor of air traffic management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, said the caps might limit "delays a little bit" but probably won't result in sweeping benefits.

"This summer will probably be on par with last summer," he said.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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