Continental Airlines and other carriers are coming under increasing pressure from the Department of Transportation to do something about chronic flight delays.
The department is investigating all 20 airlines that report to it about their customer service, to see why so many flights regularly arrive late.
While this effort began even before a summer season where flight delays hit record levels, the agency publicly made its displeasure known last week. That's when the departing head of the Federal Aviation Administration told airlines they need to reduce congestion or the government could do it for them.
"The airlines need to take a step back on scheduling practices that are at times out of line with reality," FAA administrator Marion Blakey said in the speech.
Satisfying that demand could be a challenge for Houston-based Continental, with a hub at Newark Liberty International Airport. Along with other big New York City airports, it is among the most congested in the country.
In a 12-month period ending in July, more than 37 percent of the flights Continental flew into Newark daily were more than 15 minutes late, DOT data show. In comparison, about 27 percent of its flights into Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport were late.
FAA standards say a flight is considered late if it arrives more than 15 minutes past its scheduled arrival time.
Nationwide, more than 25 percent of flights were delayed, compared with 22 percent last year.
Continental said it is trying to address the concerns raised by DOT.
"We are working with the DOT on that, as well as consulting with the task forces they have set up to confront delay issues," spokesman Dave Messing said in an e-mail. He declined to offer specifics about what it is doing.
On Friday, when Continental announced it was expanding its hub in Cleveland, the airline pointed out it was shifting smaller jets out of Newark as part of a longer-term effort to reduce its number of flights there by moving to bigger planes on some routes.
The federal government has the power to pressure the industry.
DOT spokesman Bill Moseley said the department could levy fines against carriers if it determines they are publishing what is calls "unrealistic flight schedules."
"We are looking at the on-time performance of all 20 carriers," Moseley said. "If they are publishing unrealistic schedules, we could issue civil penalties."
Cease-and-desist orders are another option to make the airlines address chronically late flights, Moseley said.
But those who follow the industry are not sure that the problem can be solved by airlines taking steps such as adjusting their schedules, reducing their number of flights by shifting to larger jets, or changing fares to limit the number of travelers in the busiest periods.
The FAA is also working on long-term solutions, like improving the air traffic system , but none of those options offers short-term relief.
"We have one big mess," Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition said. "I am not sure the airlines can really do this without government help."
For the first seven months of the year, the industry's on-time performance was the worst since 1995, according to government statistics.
These delays are worsening at a time when airlines are carrying more than 700 million passengers a year. A report released recently by the DOT's Bureau of Transportation Statistics showed a 2.7 percent increase during the first six months of this year.
The airlines essentially are back to where they were in 2000, when there were congressional hearings looking into air travel congestion, Mitchell said. But that problem disappeared with the big dropoff in traffic because of the recession after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
What's different now is that as traffic has grown, there's also been a rapid increase in the number of regional jets the airlines are using, Mitchell said. These smaller jets are popular with travelers looking for nonstop flights between smaller markets and big cities.
"It may be the leading problem," Mitchell said.
Travel and fare expert Terry Trippler released an analysis Thursday comparing what flights airlines offer in certain markets and how many seats they involve. For example, from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Newark, Northwest Airlines has five flights a day, compared with six for Continental, but Northwest can carry 226 more passengers on its larger jets.
Continental responded that it has made an effort to change the planes it uses so it can grow without adding flights in Newark. For example, Continental carried 9 percent more passengers in August than it did last year without adding a flight, Messing said.
Last week it announced it will be adding more than 50 flights in Cleveland. Continental said many of the planes in Cleveland will be smaller regional jets it had been flying in Newark.
Another option that's been discussed is congestion pricing, where ticket prices for flying at the most popular time of day would be higher, Mitchell said.
The airlines also could be forced to point out when flights are chronically late.
One problem facing airlines now is they don't want to make sacrifices, such as slowing their growth, if their rivals don't do the same.
But cooperative efforts are often forbidden under laws designed to ensure competition. For example, if they all raised fares during peak demand times, they might be able to reduce the number of flights, but carriers are not allowed to talk to each other about pricing.
More horror stories
The number of domestic passengers is expected to rise to more than 1 billion a year by 2015, according to FAA estimates.
Those estimates prompted Mitchell to say that the problems that resulted in horror stories about passengers who got stuck for hours inside jets parked on ramps this year will only get worse.
The airlines have put much of the blame for delays on the FAA and the air traffic control system, which they say has not kept up with the airline business's growth.
The FAA earlier this month announced a redesign of the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia metropolitan areas' airspace. Those changes in the routes used for landing and takeoffs are expected to reduce delays.
That was hailed by the chief of the Air Transport Association, James May, who called it a long-awaited first step to relieve "unprecedented" congestion in the Northeast.
The FAA also has a long-term plan to upgrade the air transport control system, but it needs support in Congress to pay for the costly project.
The tax system that funds the FAA and the authority for its programs both expire Sept. 30. The FAA is pushing "NextGen," short for the Next Generation Air Transportation System Financing Reform Act of 2007. It says the NextGen system will accommodate two to three times current traffic levels, but a fight is expected over how to pay for it.
Aviation consultant Mike Boyd of the Boyd Group said he thinks that the government largely is responsible for what is happening with the nation's air traffic system.
"Unfortunately, instead of the DOT investigating why the FAA has failed, they are investigating the airlines, which are just trying to meet the needs of the nation," Boyd said.
The FAA is seven years late in its program to update the air traffic control system and five times over budget, Boyd said.
"It is outrageous," Boyd said. "This is a smokescreen of the worst kind."