FAA Acts to Head off Cruel Summer for Fliers; Hopes New Technology will Prevent Record Delays

HERNDON, Va. -- Large airports are more congested than ever and flights are packed, prompting concerns that flight delays will exceed last year's record levels, airline and federal officials said Wednesday.

Already this year, flight delays are up sharply. Late flights logged by the Federal Aviation Administration are 13% above the same period in 2006.

To reduce gridlock, the FAA has begun two new technology programs designed to minimize delays, Administrator Marion Blakey said in a news conference at the agency's Command Center.

The agency is expanding a pilot program introduced last summer by taking it nationwide. The program attempts to delay only those flights that must fly through thunderstorms.

Previously, the FAA needlessly delayed many flights because it had no way to distinguish those that could not fly safely because of weather from those that had clear sailing.

Known as the Airspace Flow Program, FAA models showed that on the 19 severe-weather days last year when the program was used, delays due to weather were reduced by 21%.

A second program, which started this year, uses computers to help airlines maximize their efficiency on days when they must cancel dozens or hundreds of flights.

Airlines are forced to cancel or delay more flights than necessary because they cannot be certain when socked-in airports will resume operations. Starting in March, an FAA computer program began helping airlines schedule flights to fill unused slots into airports plagued by bad weather, said the agency's chief air-traffic planner, Mike Sammartino.

The programs appear to be helping to at least ease the worst airport delays, said Jim May, president of the Air Transport Association, the trade group for large carriers.

"We are in a pact with the FAA to cooperatively work out these delays," May said.

However, May, Blakey and aviation experts say that the FAA needs to completely revamp its air-traffic system to prevent a future meltdown.

The agency deserves credit for incremental improvements, said John Hansman, an aviation professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But the trends suggest this year will most likely be worse than last, Hansman said.

"It won't be better," he said.

While overall traffic has fallen since Sept. 11, 2001, flights into the largest airline hubs have increased, according to the FAA.

Flights will be about 85% full this summer, May said.

When asked what she would tell fliers during the summer season, which begins with Memorial Day this weekend, Blakey said, "Our best advice is to allow extra time."