Runway Backup at Atlanta's Int'l Airport

Those dreaded delays are again plaguing flights to and from Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Since Sept. 8, 10 percent of all flights in and out of Atlanta have been delayed. And half of those delays are blamed on one thing --- the closing of a single runway for repaving.

The numbers are eye-popping, especially because delays were to have ended after the airport's vaunted fifth runway opened May 27 at a cost of $1.3 billion. The nation's busiest airport finally was to have the capability to handle its business. But that hasn't been the case since one of two runways on the north side of the airport was closed for its first repaving since 1969.

Nearly 12,000 flights have been delayed since Sept. 8, the date of the closing, for a total of almost 8,200 hours, according to figures provided by the Federal Aviation Administration and analyzed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The delays cause headaches in cities where Atlanta's two largest carriers, Delta Air Lines and AirTran Airways, have a significant presence --- Chicago, New York and Cincinnati, according to the FAA.

Before the runway was closed, an average of 117 flights a day were delayed this year, for various reasons, primarily weather. Since the runway closed, the average number of flights delayed each day for all reasons combined more than doubled, to 283.

Before the runway closed, the airport averaged less than one delay per day because of runway problems. Since Sept. 8, it is averaging 145 a day.

This wasn't supposed to happen.

The repaving project was scheduled for 60 days in the autumn because this typically is a season of good weather and a dip in the number of flights, said Douglas Molin, the FAA's director of tactical operations for a region spanning from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean. The FAA, Hartsfield-Jackson officials and airlines all signed off on the decision, he said.

Neither assumption proved to be correct.

"We had the worst weather for a September that we've had in some time," Molin said. "We had an increase in planes of 6 percent, compared to September 2005. We had an increase in traffic, double the bad weather and the result was we had significant delays."

Delta Air Lines accounts for about 70 percent of flights at Hartsfield-Jackson. The carrier, which is trying to climb out of financial distress, tried a head-on approach to the nightmare for its customers. Delta sent an e-mail last week to more than 60,000 customers scheduled to fly in or out of Atlanta in the next several days to inform them about the possible delays.

"While passengers are typically aware of the inconveniences caused by weather delays, we also wanted them to be aware that flights could be impacted by the runway improvements in Atlanta," said Anthony Black, a Delta spokesman.

Gwinnett County educators Mariella McNally and Sherry Smith are among a distinct minority of air travelers who say delays don't bother them. As they waited for their on-time flight Friday afternoon, they passed time in the airport's Atrium eating ice cream cones and people-watching.

"It can be an awesome experience," Smith said. "You get to experience the airport and see how it functions, and you never know who you're going to meet. We got the opportunity to talk to the military guys and thank them for what they do."

Smith and McNally, who have worked together 12 years teaching special education students at R.L. Norton Elementary School in Snellville, were particularly intrigued by a man who walked in circles around the group of chairs where they sat. Sometimes he sang softly and other times he clapped. He clearly would be part of the adventure Smith and McNally would talk about when they arrived in Harrisburg, Pa., for a surprise bridal shower for McNally's daughter, Christine.

"As far as I'm concerned, there are no big deals," McNally said, turning back to flight delays. "If one flight falls through, we'll take the next one. It's better than stewing about it, which doesn't make it any better."

Given the reality of the runway repaving project, the airport is handling its flight volume "exceptionally well," said Molin, the FAA director. The four runways that are open are managed so that, on busy times for departures, three are used for outgoing planes and the other is for incoming planes. The situation is reversed during peak times for arrivals, he said.

In order to manage flights to and from Hartsfield-Jackson, and all the airports in the country, the FAA has an extensive communications systems for airlines, general aviation such as corporate jets, and airport operators, Molin said. The goal is to tweak departure schedules so that arriving flights will have a place to land, instead of circling interminably or being diverted to another airport.

Every two hours, the FAA's command station in Herndon, Va., conducts a telephone conference for up to 60 callers, Molin said. They talk about weather conditions and issues such as runway construction that can affect flight schedules. In between calls, the parties file updates on an FAA Web page, Molin said.

The runway at Hartsfield-Jackson is to reopen in early November, said Felicia Browder, the airport's spokeswoman. The project will cost about $90 million. While acknowledging the distress of delays, Browder said the setback of reverting to four runways underscores the value of the runway that opened in time for Memorial Day travel.

"This reconstruction has had an impact, but it is temporary and is a reminder of just how important it is that we opened our fifth runway," she said. "We are asking people to excuse our dust and bear with us until we get this project complete."

Computer-assisted reporting specialist Megan Clarke contributed to this article.


* Average number of delays per day after Sept. 8 attributed to runway capacity: 145

* Before Sept 8: less than one

* Since Sept. 8, 11,865 flights were delayed for various reasons, for a total of almost 8,200 hours

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