Recent Flight Delays Hint at Troubled System

Because airlines are operating with nearly full flights, it is more difficult to rebook passengers who get delayed or stranded.

Kate Hanni is no expert on air traffic and airline scheduling. But the Napa Valley real estate broker believes the system is broken after being stuck last month for more than eight hours on a parked jet with overflowing toilets and only a few pretzels to eat.

Hanni and her family were among several hundred passengers whose American Airlines flights sat for hours after being diverted to Austin on Dec. 29. After years of relatively smooth air-traffic operations, aviation experts say these flights and last year's spike in severe delays hint that the system is once again nearing capacity and could increasingly falter in the near future.

"We've reached the tipping point," said Hanni, who is helping lead a group of passengers calling for congressional action. "We're not going to tolerate being treated like this."

Hanni's case is highly unusual. A USA TODAY analysis of federal delay numbers shows that the airlines and the government have become more adept in recent years at minimizing the impact of delays on passengers, at least compared with 1999 and 2000.

Cancellations are down

For example, flight delays last summer, when thunderstorms traditionally cause the most mayhem, were lower than previous years, according to data collected by the Federal Aviation Administration. And, while delays are up, canceled flights are well below levels in 1999 and 2000, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Aviation specialists, airlines and federal officials say the system is prone to breakdowns, especially in busy pockets such as New York, where delays are climbing. And because airlines are operating with nearly full flights, it is more difficult to rebook passengers who get delayed or stranded.

The FAA recently forecast how the air-traffic system would perform in 2014 without drastic improvements in efficiency. Russ Chew, the FAA's air-traffic chief, said the agency estimated there would be 29 days in which the number of delays exceed the highest one-day total recorded in 2004.

"That's a lot," Chew said.

After 2000, when a summer of powerful thunderstorms and labor problems cut flight schedules to ribbons, airlines and the FAA began seeking ways to improve the system. The effort included several major changes:

*Airlines altered schedules at major hubs to reduce missed connections and delays caused by too many flights at the same time.

*Airlines canceled fewer flights. In 2000, more than 3% of flights were canceled, compared with 1.6% last year through November, according to federal data. At busy airports such as Chicago's O'Hare, the drop was more pronounced, from 7% in 2000 to 2.5% last year. Even a small number of cancellations can cause major passenger disruptions, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Cynthia Barnhart, who studies airline schedules.

*The FAA last year began a program that delays only flights that should not take off because of bad weather. Previously, the agency delayed hundreds more flights that weren't even headed toward bad weather.

*The agency aggressively imposed restrictions on delay-prone airports such as O'Hare and New York's LaGuardia. In recent years, both airports would gum up after airlines scheduled more flights per hour than runways could handle. Now, the FAA limits flights to keep operations smooth.

The improvements have been incremental. Without new technology that allows planes to fly closer together and expansion of overstressed airports, many experts fear that the system is headed for bigger delays. "The system is trying to fix itself with all sorts of Band-Aids," said George Donohue, a former FAA official who teaches at George Mason University. "Ultimately the system is going to burst."

The FAA is attempting to design a new air-traffic system that would scrap ground-based radars in favor of satellite navigation, allowing an increase in air traffic.

'It gets ridiculous'

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