Carol Luxton could handle the delays, irritating as they are, if only the airlines would give passengers a bit of notice.
"My flight from Birmingham was supposed to leave at 11:55," she recounts as she waits in O'Hare Airport's busy baggage claim. "At 11:50 they told us the plane wouldn't even arrive until 2:30." By then it was too late to alert her husband, who drove to the airport from their home in Sycamore, Ill., only to have to turn around again. By the time she finally landed in Chicago, she was 4-1/2 hours late.
For frequent travelers in and out of America's busiest airport, Luxton's tale is all too common, one more saga that travelers trade about hours waiting at gates or on tarmacs. Even those who never set foot in O'Hare feel the effect, since US airports' "hub and spoke" system means that delays at major hubs quickly ripple to other cities.
The O'Hare situation has gotten so bad - a record 14,500 delays in May alone - that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has called on all domestic carriers serving the airport to meet Wednesday, an unprecedented action to try and solve a mess caused, at least in part, by overscheduling and zealous competition among the airlines.
The goal for Wednesday's meeting is for the airlines to voluntarily reduce flights at peak times enough to lessen congestion, but the FAA has also said it will consider mandatory flight caps.
"So far, they've done this in a voluntary, collaborative way," says Vahid Motevalli, director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University. "The issue's going to be once you start crossing the line into regulatory mode.... If [the FAA goes] down the path of trying to impose it, then they have to be able to do this for every airport, and it's counter to the deregulation that went through in the late 1970s."
O'Hare, as a common connecting point and a major hub for United and American Airlines, has always been prone to delays: In the first half of 2004, only 63 percent of flights arrived on time. Bad weather - winter snow and summer thunderstorms - is common, and the crisscrossed runway configuration complicates take-off and landing coordination for air-traffic controllers.
But as the number of people flying nears pre-9/11 levels, and airlines use more small, regional-size planes - which means more flights with fewer passengers - the problem has gotten steadily worse. Through June 30, O'Hare had seen 58,600 delays, more than the full-year totals for 2000, 2001, and 2002. Because the airport is such a critical hub, even flights that never pass through it can suffer hours-long delays - waiting, for instance, to use airplanes still stuck in Chicago. The FAA says O'Hare holdups are responsible for a large portion of the increased delays nationwide.
At different points critics have blamed major airlines for scheduling more flights than the airport can handle; smaller carriers, like Independence Air, for adding flights after United and American reduced theirs; and the contentious process of airport expansion.
"The nice thing about this one is that everyone is at fault," says Darryl Jenkins, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "It's a very bad problem, but for consultants it's a great problem, because it will be with us until the day we die." The FAA discussions this week were probably necessary, he adds, since O'Hare has such an effect on the whole country, but a solution that eases congestion is likely to raise fares.
"We need a fair and equitable solution for the short term," says Mary Frances Fagan, a spokeswoman for American Airlines. She's optimistic that the meeting will help, though she says the FAA's goals - limiting scheduled flights to 90 an hour, down from the 100 or 120 that are often scheduled - are conservative. Both United and American reduced their peak-time flights 7-1/2 percent earlier this year in response to FAA requests, she notes, but the reductions were offset by added flights from smaller carriers. "Delays at O'Hare aren't just an issue of scheduling," she adds. "May was the fifth wettest month on record."
The delays have renewed Chicago's perennial debate about whether to expand O'Hare. Mayor Richard Daley and the airlines have pushed expansion for years, while Sen. Peter Fitzgerald and others want a new, third airport. Last week, Senator Fitzgerald went so far as to tell the Chicago Tribune that the O'Hare delays might be a tactic to get expansion approved, a suggestion airlines have dismissed as ridiculous.
In the end, travelers may just have to get used to the idea that delayed flights are a fact of life. "Every roadway around Chicago is congested at rush hour," notes David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association. "Why should the airport be immune?"
The best solution, Mr. Stempler argues, is the marketplace: Given supply and demand, things will eventually work out. "Travelers don't want fewer flights or higher fares, both of which could be produced by [the FAA meeting]." Besides, he says, congestion helps create support for infrastructure improvements.
None of that is much consolation to weary travelers, of course. On a recent cloudless Monday, the screens were dotted with delays.
At least one passenger, though, made peace with the situation.
"Delays happen on a regular basis, but the nice thing is you get direct flights," says Alex Darragh, a commercial real estate worker from Evanston who travels weekly. "And if you live in Chicago, once you do get here, you're home." Mr. Darragh is calm despite an aborted trip to Chile. Once he realized he'd miss his connection in Dallas, he called off the trip. But he sees no point in getting upset: "It happens all the time, and you can't control it," he says. "You learn to relax."