Air Travel Failings Exposed Again by Weekend Storms

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The line of thunderstorms stretching from Albany to Washington over the weekend showed once again how broken the nation's air system is, according to travelers and activists.

On Sunday, more than 80 percent of the 709 arriving flights at John F. Kennedy International Airport were late; 142 were canceled and 53 were diverted, according to data from FlightStats, a flight-tracking Web site.

"I think they are in a free fall," Kate Hanni, president of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, said of the airlines and federal regulators. "They got caught with their pants down from a small storm and they could not recover."

So far this month, about 44 percent of JFK flights were late, according to FlightStats. About 40 percent of the flights arriving at both LaGuardia and Newark Liberty International airports were late. Problems in New York had a ripple effect throughout the nation's air traffic system.

Hanni says the airlines can solve the New York congestion problem by scheduling fewer flights and not overbooking.

The Department of Transportation and the airlines have already agreed to hourly flight caps at JFK and Newark, which regulators say should reduce delays.

The problem started around noon on Sunday, when a couple of storm cells appeared, eventually forming into a line of storms over the New York area, according to Laura Brown, a Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman.

By 1:23 p.m. the FAA had imposed a "groundstop" on operations at all major New York airports, preventing planes from flying into the area. Some planes from Europe had to be diverted to Boston's Logan International Airport. The planes caused headaches later when they had to be juggled back into the New York air system.

In Columbus, Ohio, where the sky was clear, travelers got messages early in the day that their flights to the New York region were being pushed back. After Laurie Moore, a Web editor from New York City, got a call from Orbitz telling her that the 8 p.m. Continental Airlines flight from Columbus to Newark was canceled, she raced to the airport to catch a 5:20 p.m. flight.

After about two hours of waiting, the airline announced that the flight would be pushed to 7:30 p.m., then to 8:45 p.m.

"One group started cheering," Moore said. "Another group of people commented about how it was crazy that they were cheering that the plane was going to arrive four hours late."

Moore said Continental employees told her that their plane was still in Boston, and would be heading to Newark before arriving in Columbus.

To lessen New York area congestion over the long term, the Department of Transportation has been trying to compel airlines to auction landing and take-off slots at JFK and Newark airports. Regulators say that forcing airlines to auction off a relatively small number will improve service. Major airline trade groups in Washington are battling the proposed auctions.

The Columbus passengers finally boarded their Newark-bound plane at 10 p.m., Moore said.

"They should have a better plan," she said of the airlines and air traffic managers. "Maybe I have high expectations."

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