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Will air travel be better this summer?

Airlines move to reduce problems of 2007's dismal season, with a focus on New York area traffic.

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"The airlines give you half the bargain: They say their customers tell us they want more frequent service," says aviation analyst Robert Mann of R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, N.Y. "The airlines really need to offer the whole bargain, which is: Do you want more frequent service that's completely unreliable because of the delays and cancellations it drives, or would you like slightly fewer flights that are much more likely to be on time?"

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To deal with the rising number of flights in and out of airports in the New York area, the FAA this year put a cap on the number of flights that can leave per hour at JFK Airport, located in Queens. Such limits were already in place at LaGuardia, also in Queens, and Newark International in nearby New Jersey. The goal is to keep the air-traffic-control system from being overburdened, especially during peak travel times.

But that may have created an inadvertent problem, analysts say. Here's why: Under the old system, airlines tended to schedule more flights during the preferred travel times, leaving slower periods in the midmorning and early afternoon.

"What happened was delays occurred during the peaks and actually recovered during the valley periods," says Mr. Mann. "With the caps, you have a situation where almost the whole day is scheduled to [the limit], so there's no off-peak period to recover in. In the worst case, the delays will just propagate throughout the day."

Delays have become so routine that the airlines have set up new systems to alert passengers individually to problems with their flights. They've installed better software to help reroute flights when the system is thrown into chaos, and they've worked with airports to make passenger inconvenience more bearable. Many airports now are stocked with cots, pillows, and blankets in case planeloads of passengers are stranded overnight. Some plan to keep concession stands open all night and to do more to help travelers stranded in a plane on the tarmac.

"If a plane is out there for an hour or two, the airport will be in touch with the airline to see what kind of services we can provide. Sometimes in the past that kind of proactive interaction didn't happen," says Greg Principato of Airports Council International-North America.

But even with airlines' good intentions, analysts expect to see a summer filled with delayed and stranded passengers. Their best advice: "Travel only, only when necessary," says Mr. Mitchell. "Build a lot of time in and be armed before you go with alternative airports to get back, phone numbers, everything you'll need for when things go south. And they will."

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