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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.