WASHINGTON -- Air travelers could face fewer flight delays during stormy weather this summer because of a new system for routing flights, federal aviation regulators say.
The Federal Aviation Administration and airlines are optimistic that the system will help improve traffic flows, which are prone to gridlock when thunderstorms strike during spring and summer months.
"We're anxious to try it," says Basil Barimo, vice president of the Air Transport Association, the airlines' trade organization. "We think it will be more predictable and more flexible."
Without such improvements, passengers could be hit with massive flight delays like those seen in 1999 and 2000.
Under current standards, thunderstorms in one section of the nation prompt air-traffic controllers to issue blanket delays for hundreds of flights, even those that don't have to fly through the rough weather. Many flights are held back unnecessarily, says Mike Cirillo, a vice president in the FAA's Air Traffic Organization.
The new system orders delays only for flights that must be held back because aircraft are prohibited from flying through the high winds and turbulence of thunderstorms.
The FAA will unveil the system in the Northeast on June 5, Cirillo says. The FAA hopes to expand it nationally next year.
The system uses computer tools to identify the flights that must avoid the storms but will not delay flights that have clear paths to their destinations. It was made possible by recently developed technology, he says.
The system also will spread flight delays among all types of flights. Private planes and charter flights now are less likely to be delayed because many use smaller airports that often aren't affected when the FAA orders delays. By spreading out delays more equitably, the FAA hopes to cut average waits.
"We are expecting significant benefits when it is fully implemented," Cirillo says. The system won't eliminate most flight delays, but computer models show it will reduce their number and severity, he says.
In 2000, only 72.6% of flights on large airlines arrived on time as storms and rapid growth in air traffic clogged the system, according to federal statistics. Delays fell when traffic declined after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but the number of late flights has crept up in recent years as traffic increased. Last year, 77.4% of flights arrived on time.
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