Record delays clog crowded skies

As record numbers of Americans fly, delays at airports reach historic peaks for the second year in a row.

Advice to travelers planning to fly this summer: When you go to the airport, bring plenty of food and water - not to mention a good book.

That, in fact, is official advice from the Air Travelers' Association - and it typifies how grueling US air travel has become.

Indeed, the nation's airports are experiencing record delays this summer - for the second year in a row. Reasons vary, from the ephemeral thunderstorm to chronic problems with air-traffic control and a lack of capacity at airports.

But experts agree on one thing: Travelers will have to learn to exercise patience, because delays are likely to get worse before they get better, despite unprecedented efforts by the Federal Aviation Administration. "Nothing I can see on the horizon will fix it," says R. John Hansman, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A primary cause of the packed tarmacs is the booming economy, which has freed up more Americans to fly than ever before. In

1978, 275 million Americans took to the skies. More than 650 million did last year.

The end result: an antiquated air-traffic-control system coping with a record number of full flights departing from and arriving at overcrowded airports. Put those together with the unpredictable summer weather and you get delays, and lots of them.

Last week, the FAA announced that in June, 48,448 flights out of a total 14.2 million were delayed 15 minutes or more. That's a 16.5 percent increase over June a year ago.

That's why the Air Traveler's Association added food and water to its list of recommendations. "You now have to assume that you're going to have some delays," says David Stempler, president of the association. "Bring plenty of reading material and change for phone calls, as well."

It's advice that Kathryn Dotlich wishes she'd gotten before she left her home in Clearwater, Fla., for a 5:30 p.m. flight to Boston to visit her grandchild last week.

"Well, in the beginning, they didn't know how long we would be waiting at the airport. They announced, 'We'll know at 6 p.m.,' then, 'we'll know at 6:30 p.m.,' then they said might be as long as 10," she says. "We finally did get on at 7:30 p.m. and arrived at 10:30 p.m."

Dotlich was told weather was the cause of the delay, then air-traffic-control problems. She never found out for sure.

The FAA estimates that weather accounts for 70 percent of airline delays. In June, several banks of thunderstorms rolled across the northern part of the country, increasing that percentage to almost 80.

Similar unusual weather problems plagued air travelers last summer, leading the FAA and the airlines to share more information than ever before. The goal was to create alternate routes for the airlines so planes could fly around bad weather. The main air-traffic controllers in Washington were given more authority to route traffic nationwide, and the airlines started sharing information and schedules. By May, the changes seemed to be making an impact. Delays were actually down 7 percent from last year.

But June's stormy weather, combined with pilot dissatisfaction with some of the new runway procedures designed to increase air traffic, quickly overwhelmed the system.

David Fuscus of the Air Transport Association, the airline industry's lobbying organization, says he's not surprised. While the changes might have dealt with the symptoms, the primary cause of the delays remains the nation's antiquated air-traffic-control system. "Basically, we have a two-lane highway when we need a six-lane highway," he says. "When you have severe weather, the system can't handle it."

The FAA began planning to upgrade the system almost 20 years ago. But many of the proposals ended up being outstripped by technology even before they got off the drawing board. In 1996, the FAA abandoned an advanced automated system after spending $2.9 billion developing it. "But these are tools we really need today," Mr. Fuscus says.

But the FAA is upgrading its radar and other systems where possible. And Congress this year also authorized $40 billion to overhaul the air traffic system. But a final fix could still be as long as a decade away.

"Without any question, air travel is not the pleasure it used to be five or 10 years ago," says David Tyrrell, a frequent traveler from Tampa, Fla.

Mr. Tyrrell says he's escaped most of the travel nightmares - although there was that one time he was rerouted on a flight from San Diego and had to spend the night in Cincinnati. Mostly, the delays he's experienced have been inconveniences - a half-hour here, a missed connection there - but there have definitely been more of them. "There are routinely more delays, routinely more cancellations."

Mr. Hansman says the system will probably start to adjust to the dramatic increase in traffic. Already, many high-end businessmen are moving away from commercial airlines to private jets. Alternative airports are gaining more traffic. For instance, many people now fly from Manchester, N.H., to Baltimore, instead of Boston to Washington.

Eventually, Hansman says that large hub airports might start popping up in underutilized places, such as Newburg, N.Y., or West Virginia. Ticket pricing might change, so a passenger would pay more to be guaranteed to leave at a certain time. The FAA may also step in and require airlines to fly bigger planes that can accommodate more passengers.

"It may become critical enough in the future that we'll have to decide to expand the airports, even though that may not be popular locally," says Hansman. "That requires political will that doesn't exist right now."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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