Demand Management

Demand Management Coping with flight delays and congestion at airports By G. Brian Busey & George C. Eads August 2000 There is no more vexing problem facing the airport and aviation community than the growing number of air carrier...


Demand Management

Coping with flight delays and congestion at airports

By G. Brian Busey & George C. Eads

August 2000

There is no more vexing problem facing the airport and aviation community than the growing number of air carrier flight delays and cancellations. As everyone is aware, complaints by air travelers have risen dramatically during the last few years. According to DOT Inspector General Kenneth Mead, flight problems (delays, cancellations, and missed connections) rank as the number one air traveler complaint. In the middle of this changing dynamic are the airports, where managers are beginning to explore the concept of demand management in an attempt to help alleviate pressure on the system.

Delays have increased substantially over just the last few years. As measured by the DOT/FAA, which considers a flight "delayed" if it is more than 15 minutes late in departing, delays have increased by over 50 percent and cancellations have increased 68 percent during the last five years.

A considerable number of these delays take the form of longer taxi-in and taxi-out times (the time between an aircraft departing the gate and taking off and the time between landing and reaching a gate). According to the DOT Inspector General's recent Congressional testimony, at the largest U.S. airports the number of flights experiencing taxi-out times of one hour or more increased 130 percent between 1995 and 1999.

Despite the FAA's Spring/ Sum-mer initiative to reduce delays, in part by centralizing more authority in the Air Traffic Con-trol System Com-mand Center in Herndon, Virginia, delays appear to be continuing to in-crease. For example, preliminary FAA data show that June 2000 was the worst month on record for delayed flights. For June, the airlines reported more than 48,000 flight delays. This compares with about 45,000 flight delays for July 1999, the previous monthly record.

Sources of the Delay Problem
The problem of flight delays has many sources. Bad weather certainly is a key cause. The outdated U.S. ATC system also bears a share of the responsibility for delays, although the FAA has recently attempted to make some adjustments designed to improve the efficiency of ATC operations. And although the airlines are loathe to admit it, their scheduling and hubbing practices also play a critical role in the rising tide of delays and cancellations.

Airlines have responded to steadily rising passenger demand by adding flights to an aviation system that has seen little increase in the nation's runway capacity at major commercial airports. According to FAA data, revenue passenger miles ("RPMs") increased by 4.8 percent and enplanements by 3.8 percent during 1999.

FAA forecasts that RPMs will increase at an average annual rate of 4.1 percent during the period 1999 through 2011. If so, this will produce a cumulative increase of over 60 percent in airline traffic by 2011.

The FAA's forecasts growth in regional/commuter traffic — fueled in part by the growth in usage of regional jets — at a 7.4 percent annual increase in RPMs from 1999 to 2011. Indeed, though revenue passenger miles have almost doubled since 1984, the average number of available seats per departure peaked at 164 in that year and fell to 146 in 1997. This trend is not expected to reverse. Boeing, in its Current Market Outlook for 2000, projects that almost three-fourths of the deliveries between 1999 and 2018 will be "small airplanes."

At the same time, the prospects for major new domestic airports are remote; the last major new airport to open in the U.S. was Denver International in 1995 and before that it was Dallas/Ft. Worth International some 20 years earlier.

The predictable result of these intersecting trends has been mushrooming flight delays and passenger complaints. As the accompanying table shows, at many major U.S. airports roughly one in three flights were delayed during April 2000.

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