What airlines are doing to reduce record delays

With flight delays at a 13-year high, carriers feel pressure to make improvements – and still keep ticket prices low.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

JetBlue has extended its flying day to allow flight schedules time to recover from delays. Southwest Airlines has created a new early-warning system to detect holdups before they snarl the whole system. And United has upgraded its technology to better communicate with delayed customers.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is also redesigning some airspace, creating alternative routes to get around thunderstorms and is in the first phase of upgrading its entire air traffic control system.

Weary summer travelers who've spent hours out on the tarmac may not believe it, but the airlines and the FAA are working overtime to expedite flying in America's congested skies.

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But with delays in the first half of 2007 the worst since the Department of Transportation started keeping track 13 years ago, there's only so much they can do. Weather is the primary culprit, accounting for about three-quarters of the delays.

But nature's unpredictably is exacerbated by other factors: record numbers of planes and passengers in the skies, financially fragile airlines operating with bare-bones staff, and an antiquated air traffic control system. In short, the system is pushed to the limit. But for each of those problems there is a solution, although none is a quick fix and each cost money at a time when the flying public continues to demand rock bottom fares.

"There is hope, but it's going to get worse before it gets better," says John Hansman, an aviation expert from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "When it gets bad enough, people will become willing to pay for reliability. But right now we're at a point where airlines have to run very lean in order to make ends meet."

That's right. If American fliers want a better system, they have to be willing to pay for it. That means higher fares on commercial planes so that airlines can have enough staff and planes on reserve to accommodate the extra demand created by weather disruptions. That way they could more easily rebook people who miss their connections, many of whom have found themselves waiting hours this summer, if not days, to get on another flight because the jampacked airlines don't have enough seats to accommodate them.

And for the increasing number of corporate execs who are opting to beat the system by using private jets, it means higher fees for their use of airspace so there will be more money available for the FAA to modernize its air traffic control system.

While the market ultimately dictates how much passengers pay on commercial jets, Congress does decide how much airlines should pay to use the air traffic control system. And there is a heated debate underway in Washington right now over whether corporate jets should be required to pay the same fees to the FAA as commercial jets. Right now, commercial jets pay a fee to the FAA each time they use the air traffic control system. Corporate jets pay only a tax on their fuel. While private jets are usually smaller than their commercial counterparts, they require the same time and attention from air traffic controllers when they take off. And so the commercial airlines argue that they and their passengers are unfairly carrying the brunt of the costs of the overburdened air traffic control system.

In a satiric YouTube posting called "Excursions with Edna," the Air Transport Association which represents the commercial carriers notes that the plane Edna took to her summer vacation paid $1,500 in fees to the FAA. While the corporate "big wig" who's private jet "went the same place and used the same services" paid only $120. The announcer notes that "Edna likes wearing big wigs, not subsidizing them" and urges people to call their congressman.

The private jet community argues that paying the same fees as commercial airlines could bankrupt many of their operations. Before Congress in July, Richard Shine, a board member of the National Business Aviation Association said they'd be willing to help pay their fair share to upgrade the air traffic control system, but not through user fees. They'd rather keep paying fuel taxes as they do now. "We want to pay at the pump – not through user fees or new taxes," he said.

Congress has to resolve the situation by the end of September, when the current FAA authorization expires. That will ultimately determine how much money there is to fix the aging air traffic control system. In the meantime, the FAA and the airlines have already begun instituting some pilot programs designed to shift the air traffic control system from its current 1950s-based radar navigation to satellite-based navigation. That's something that critics say is long over due: Rental cars with GPS systems have more advanced navigational aids than the FAA's air traffic control system.

In Alaska, Dallas and Atlanta the FAA has several pilot programs that are now using GPS to ease congestion. Right now, GPS can help with takeoffs and landings, and eventually it can make the entire system more efficient.

"It's much like a GPS unit in a car, it allows you to travel in a straighter line," says Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American Airlines. "In the current system you have to go from airport beacon to airport beacon. It's far out of line with what we could have in a modernized air traffic control system."

In other words, airlines now find themselves hopscotching from one air traffic control tower to another in what are very congested preordained highways in the sky. It's designed that way to ensure safety. Eventually, planes will be able to fly in more efficient point-to-point routes, and not compromise safety, according to Laura Brown of the FAA.

The long-term project is called "Next Generation" navigation by the FAA and it's still years in the making. In the meantime, the FAA is redesigning some of those highways in the skies – called the airspace – in some of the most congested areas of the country like the Northeast. That redesign could be finished and easing congestion there by the fall.

Until these changes take hold, there's some standard advice for travelers: "Take the early morning flights, they're the ones that have the best on-time performance," says Dean Breest, a spokesman from Northwest Airlines.

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