On an average day this summer, 140,000 people sat stranded in airline terminals or buckled into their seats on planes that sat simmering on the tarmac waiting for delayed flights to take off.
That's a record, which has helped fuel a soaring number of complaints about the airlines to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In July, complaints were up 169 percent over the same month in 1998.
But are the airlines really to blame?
This week, in an unusual broadside, the respected and combative retired chairman of American Airlines - Robert Crandall - said no. He argues the public has got it all wrong. He says it's the FAA and its archaic, underfunded, and understaffed air-traffic control system. He's calling for the system to be privatized.
"Delays are, for the most part, attributable to failures of the air-traffic control system, and not either to bad weather or the inability of airlines to have their flights ready to depart as scheduled," he said at a conference sponsored by the Air Safety Alliance, an industry group.
But others disagree. While they acknowledge that the air-traffic control system has serious problems, they praise the progress the financially strapped and bureaucratic FAA has recently made in trying to modernize its 30-year-old system. They contend there are many reasons for the gridlock in the skies.
Top among them is the airlines themselves, which insist on scheduling as many flights as possible into already-crowded airports at peak travel times.
"The only major investment we can make in the infrastructure in this country, outside of modernization, that's going to have an immediate impact [on the delays] is putting more concrete on the ground, building new airports," says Randy Schwitz of the Air Traffic Controllers Association.
With record numbers of Americans flying - 560 million last year, almost three times the number in 1977 - the government, the airlines, and manufacturers are all trying to find ways to ease fliers' frustration. Congress is considering a "passengers' bill of rights" that would mandate better service - something the airlines are fighting.
Both the Boeing Co. and Airbus Industrie are considering a new generation of bigger jumbo jets. But those won't help much on short-hop routes, where flights are frequently scheduled to accommodate business travelers. This is particularly true in the Northeast corridor - the most congested air space in the nation.
The airlines have been increasing the number of flights. That's helped heighten competition and bring prices down, just as Congress had hoped when it deregulated the industry in 1977. But every scheduling decision an airline makes is geared to garnering the highest profit. And the best time to catch travelers is when they want to go - say, right after a 5 p.m. business meeting.
Thus, to keep competitive and profitable, airlines have packed their schedules at peak times and, critics charge, overloaded capacity at many airports. The result: rush-hour gridlock. Indeed, the skies are so packed that one delay can ripple across the nation.
From the airlines' viewpoint, though, the problem isn't scheduling: It's the air-traffic control system. They contend its procedures are outmoded and its equipment outdated. No one disputes the need to modernize the system, especially the FAA. Long a source of ridicule for the billions it's spent on new systems that ended up obsolete before they were finished, the agency has recently won some kudos.
After a stumbling start this summer - which included a few frozen computers - the FAA in August lifted some restrictions and gave controllers more authority to make decisions that could ease congestion. It has already installed new computers and display systems in eight of its air-traffic control centers. By next March, all will have the advanced technology.
"In this whole issue about delays, the FAA is the one organization, the one, that has stood up and said, 'We can do some of these things better,' " says the FAA's Monte Belger, who oversees air-traffic services. "It would be great if the airlines would perhaps tackle some of the issues that they have some responsibility for."
Mr. Belger attributes about 70 percent of the delays the FAA tracks to weather. But because the airlines aren't required to report delays due to their own mechanical or scheduling problems, the FAA can't gauge how bad things really are for travelers. "The delays are absolutely worse [than our data show]," he says. "But nobody knows that other universe - the airlines don't have to report it."
Still, the airlines are holding firm. They see flaws in not just outdated equipment, but in the FAA's whole approach to organizing the flow of air traffic. Some would like to see the system shift from reliance on radar to one based on satellite navigation - a kind of aviation global positioning system - similar to what the Pentagon uses. The FAA is experimenting with the airlines on such a system.
The technology could hasten the development of "free flight" - the replacement of predetermined flight plans with a more open model giving airlines greater control over routes and scheduling. But that idea is still a long way off.
As for passengers, the prognosis for the near future is probably more waiting. "The airlines will schedule up to the degree of delay that the public will tolerate - then they'll back off," says John Hansmann, an aviation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. "The question is how much delay will the public tolerate?"
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society