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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Bottleneck: Travelers at La Guardia International check in. Delays here and at two other New York area airports account for half the national total.
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Even with an estimated 2 million fewer people taking to the skies this summer because of the economic downturn and higher fares, airline officials are still expecting it to be a "challenging season."

Planes will still be packed, schedules interrupted by the usual thunderstorms, and airlines operating with bare-bones staffs.

So, in an effort to avoid a repeat of last summer's aviation debacle – which saw record delays, tons of lost baggage, and increased complaints – the carriers are rallying forces now in hopes of smoother flying between Memorial and Labor Days.

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Top on their list is pressuring the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to do even more to ease the air-traffic bottleneck in New York, which is responsible for half of all delays.

"This year delays will cost the airlines in the range of $10 billion," says James May, president and CEO of the Air Traffic Association, which represents major US airlines. "To give you an example, a 747 sitting on the tarmac at JFK [John F. Kennedy International] costs about $60 a minute."

The FAA and the airlines have been working to improve the efficiency of the New York airspace to reduce delays for almost 10 years. But thanks to last summer's chaos, the effort got a jump start. This past year a task force recommended 77 initiatives to make it possible for more planes to take off and land from the region's major airports at one time. Of those, only 12 have been implemented so far and another two dozen are in the works. The FAA has projected it will take five years to implement every recommendation.

That's not good enough for analysts who say the aviation system is already in crisis and damaging the economy as a whole.

"The FAA has to get a mentality where five-year projects become two-year projects and two-year projects become one-year projects," says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor, Pa. "There's this lolly-dolly attitude – things go on forever at the FAA."

Airlines, too, are pointing the finger at the FAA for not moving fast enough. But many aviation analysts say the airlines themselves are primarily responsible for many delays. The reason: the way they schedule their flights. During the past decade, the major carriers significantly increased their fleets of smaller, 50-seat regional jets, arguing that their customers wanted more frequent flights to the same destination. That added more congestion to America's archaic and overburdened air-traffic-control system and led the number of delays to spike.

"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?"

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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