As the nation's air traffic picks up this summer, many travelers may wonder if they face a repeat of last summer's numerous delays. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says a repeat performance is unlikely. It hopes to cut by one-third the daily average of 1,400 delays of 15 minutes or more experienced during last summer's peak travel.
``We're fairly optimistic we will not experience the kind of delays we had last summer,'' says FAA spokesman Dennis Feldman. That view is largely shared by the airlines.
But airport managers and watchdog groups are much less confident.
Christopher Witkowski, director of Ralph Nader's Aviation Consumer Action Project (ACAP), says he is not convinced that there will be fewer delays in 1985. And given the FAA's concerns about long-term congestion problems, he says, agency officials are probably more ``worried'' than their public comments imply.
J. Donald Reilly, executive director of the Airport Owners Council International (AOCI), a trade group of airport managers, predicts a ``chaotic'' summer. In fact, he says delays may be worse than they were a year ago.
Mr. Reilly ``believes there's just no way the airports can handle the kind of capacity increases the airlines are putting in place,'' says AOCI spokeswoman Deborah Lunn. ``We're talking about dramatic increases in scheduling.''
Those increases are expected to be particularly strong over the North Atlantic, as United States travelers fly to Europe to cash in on the strong dollar.
A spokesman for Trans World Airlines says TWA expects to increase its capacity over the Atlantic by 20 percent this summer. And Pan American World Airways is adding five new European destinations to its summer schedule. In addition, Pan Am recently established a new east-coast hub at Washington's Dulles Airport.
Last summer's delays were largely pegged to stepped-up competition for peak-hour flights under deregulation. Unusually bad weather also played a key role. The FAA says weather causes more than 60 percent of all delays.
An antitrust exemption that allowed airlines to jointly plan schedules reduced delays last winter. But the exemption expired last month. Most airlines say they will now discipline themselves and resist the temptation to bunch flights in the same peak periods. They also say that rather than adding more flights, much of the expected traffic increase can be absorbed by making sure all the seats are filled.
``There is only so much equipment and so many airplanes, and they're all pretty much in use right now -- we've had a very strong first quarter this year,'' says Air Transport Association spokesman Bill Jackman.
For its part, the FAA is one-third of the way through a 10-year, $12 billion program to upgrade air-traffic-control equipment.
It also has made a number of changes to try to speed the traffic flow.
A new computerized system based in the agency's Washington headquarters aims to use flight plans and plane movements to forecast route congestion. Controllers can then alert pilots headed for those areas to wait or take an alternate route.
The FAA has revamped a number of routes in the busy corridors around New York City's three major airports for greater efficiency. It has divided some of its busiest sectors among more controllers. And it has also been testing a reduction in the separation between planes on takeoff and landing at the Los Angeles and Newark airports. Those limits were increased after the 1981 air-traffic controllers' strike.
``All these things chip away at the problem,'' says George Howard of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Kennedy, Newark, and LaGuardia airports. ``It doesn't take much to make things improve -- it's a marginal game one plays here all the time.''
``The FAA is going to be better prepared [for traffic increases] this year, and that's going to help. They may be able to react a little more quickly when delays do occur,'' says Paul B. Gaines, director of aviation for the City of Houston and chairman of AOCI.
Still, many airports are pressed to the limit.
And with the number of airline passengers now expected to double by 1995, the FAA and airport operators realize that in time they will have to come up with some new answers.
``Capacity is the big issue and nothing beats adding a new runway or a new airport -- but it's not too likely,'' notes AOCI's Deborah Lunn.
Citizen opposition over noise and other issues has kept any new city airport from being built since the Dallas-Fort Worth facility 11 years ago. Only Denver, one of the few cities with undeveloped available land near the city, has plans for a new airport.