This summer, less airport angst

After two years of record flight delays, the nation's airlines are posting better on-time performances.

Good news for the nation's air travelers: Flight delays are dropping - finally.

After two years of record delays and flying frustration, America's airlines are posting better on-time performances.

The result: less time spent in hard chairs at airports and more prompt arrivals at business meetings and family reunions.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the number of delays dropped by 17 percent in June compared with last year. In May, there was only a slight improvement in on-time performance, but the delays were significantly shorter: The average late flight ran 56 minutes behind schedule last May. This year, it was only 37 minutes late, an improvement of more than 30 percent.

FAA officials, with an eye on the sky, say they're "cautiously optimistic" about the rest of the summer. "We can't say definitively why it's better, and things could get worse tomorrow or next week or in August," says William Shumann, an FAA spokesman. "But we are encouraged."

One major factor is the weather, which accounts for 70 percent of delays. In 1999 and 2000, El Nino and La Nina produced unusually large numbers of thunderstorms across the country's midsection at the peak of the summer travel season. So far this year, the skies have been relatively calm.

Another factor is the aggressive effort by the FAA, the airlines, and the nation's air-traffic-control centers to better coordinate traffic in congested airways.

After last year's record delays, more than 3,000 people, from airline managers to air-traffic controllers, were trained in better ways to manage flight schedules and routes when thunderstorms clutter up the already overburdened air-traffic system. The FAA also reached new agreements with Canada and the US military, which allow US commercial jets to use their airspace to detour around gridlocked routes.

While aviation experts applaud the overall improvement, they contend that it only nips at the edges of the larger, fundamental problem with the nation's aviation system: the lack of new airports and runways to cope with the record number of passengers still taking to the skies.

"They've done all of the things that they can do in the short term, and passengers are benefiting," says Prof. Dean Headley, co-author of the annual Airline Quality Rating. "But three to five years from now, if we don't have more runways, we're going to have the same problem all over again."

At the gates

At Boston's Logan airport Monday night, all the flights listed on the monitors were "on time," with only one canceled flight. That one was to Detroit, and engineer Rick Levin was supposed to be on it. Still, as he sat in the departure lounge waiting for the next flight two hours later, he says he has seen an overall improvement this year over last.

And he wasn't too upset about his current delay, which was due to a mechanical problem. "There doesn't seem to be any reason to create a big stink about it," he says. "They put me in first class, so I'll go quietly."

Many passengers, however, greeted skeptically the news that delays were down. In New York, a financial analyst for Bear Stearns, who calls herself the "Delay Queen," says she hasn't seen much improvement. And she travels around the country at least once a week.

"My favorite was last year in Chicago. We were stuck on the runway for five hours without an explanation," she says. "No, my favorite was this winter. I left New York City at 3 p.m. on a Friday and didn't get to Salt Lake City until 8 p.m. on Saturday night."

Lots of frequent travelers have similar stories. But many also have learned to take late planes for granted, like Father Eugene Clark, a priest at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. "I don't get mad. I just bring a good book," he says. "But I tell you, I switch to the train whenever I can."

And some people within the aviation industry admit the skepticism is warranted. Several years ago, after the airlines were required to start posting their on-time performance to the Department of Transportation, they started "padding" their schedules, adding another 15 to 20 minutes to flight times to improve their statistics.

Airlines have also pressured employees to improve on-time performance. Some have even tied bonuses to performance.

"If we're one minute late, we've got to send a code to explain why we couldn't make it on time," says a pilot for a major airline.

Timing the brake release

That pressure has also led to some unusual techniques. For instance, the Department of Transportation defines the time when an airplane leaves the gate as when the emergency brake is released. Some pilots have been known to release the brake before they're actually ready to leave, just so they can report an on-time departure.

Aviation experts say such behavior is not the norm, and some applaud airlines for doing what they can to improve on-time performance. But they also keep coming back to the same theme: that a major overhaul of the nation's aviation infrastructure is what's needed.

"We have an antiquated air-traffic control system, we're still moving airplanes around the sky like we did 50 years ago, and we definitely need more airports," says David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association in Washington. "Until we fix those problems, we're just moving the chairs around on the deck of the Titanic."

Sara B. Miller in New York and staff writer Stephen Humphries in Boston contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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