Late Logan Flights Exceed US Average

Oct. 8--Ed DePalma can't remember when his afternoon Continental Airlines flight home to Newark from Logan International Airport has ever left or arrived on time.

"It seems to happen every single time," DePalma, an Internet technology manager from Rumson, N.J., said earlier this week at Logan's Terminal C when the departure of his 5:30 p.m. flight was delayed an hour.

For more than a year, DePalma has been making trips to Boston roughly every two weeks. While his morning flight up is usually problem-free, his flight home seems cursed. "There's always some story," DePalma said. His favorite? The numerous times the airline blamed weather when the Jersey skies were perfectly clear.

It turns out DePalma isn't imagining things. Afternoon Continental flights from Logan to Newark Liberty International Airport have regularly over the last two years posted the worst on-time performance of any route flown out of Logan, according to an analysis performed by the government's Bureau of Transportation Statistics at the request of the Globe.

During the first six months of this year, another Continental flight to Newark, scheduled to arrive at 3:15 p.m., was late 68.4 percent of the time. The government defines "late" as a plane failing to arrive within 15 minutes of its posted time. On average, Flight 865 showed up 1 hour and 13 minutes late in Newark, according to bureau data. The trip is usually scheduled to take 75 minutes.

Because of frequent revisions in airline schedules, none of the 10 worst inbound and outbound flights in the first half of this year still operate under the same flight number or on the same timetable, making it impossible to identify the most delay-prone flights. But a review of government data going back to January 2004 shows that the Logan-Newark afternoon flights on Continental have consistently been late.

The most chronically delayed flight arriving at Logan in the first half of this year was American Airlines Flight 972 from Miami to Logan, which showed up late 69 percent of the time, arriving on average 80 minutes after its scheduled 7:09 p.m. arrival. In the second half of last year, another American Miami-to-Boston flight, which was due to arrive at 5 p.m., was also the worst incoming performer at Logan.

The Boston-Philadelphia route on US Airways was also a problem in both directions. Three afternoon flights on that route ran on average an hour late during the first half of the year and made the 10-worst list for delays.

This year through August, about 23 percent of all US commercial airline flights nationwide arrived late, and nearly 28 percent arrived late at Logan. Airlines are back to roughly the same on-time performance they posted in the late 1990s and into 2001, before the post-Sept. 11 collapse in business travel led to a short-term improvement in on-time flights, bureau data show.

It is no coincidence, aviation industry specialists say, that many of the problem flights at Logan involve key hubs such as US Airways' in Philadelphia, American's in Miami, and Continental's in Newark. To maximize operations, many airlines use a "hub" system, funneling flights through certain airports and then feeding passengers off to other cities through connecting flights.

Hubs are prone to delays because airlines bunch dozens of inbound and outbound flights at specific times of day to create connections to other cities. At hub airports, airlines are legendary for scheduling far more flights to take off in a given 10- or 15-minute period than an airport can physically accommodate. To increase the chances that flights will be on schedule, airlines pad the travel time, for example, telling passengers that it will be a 90-minute trip when flying time is actually 60 minutes, so the airline can build in a 30-minute cushion for delays.

"You always have higher-than-average congestion at hubs," said Henry Harteveldt, an aviation industry analyst with Forrester Research in San Francisco. "One delay at a hub can cause tons of problems. But there's no one thing you can point your finger at. There's no one cause."

At Logan, government data show, flight delays are about equally attributable to the ripple effect of delays elsewhere along the East Coast as they are by airlines' mechanical or service problems.

Richard Walsh, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan, said while Massport can't control weather or air traffic, it is pursuing $150 million in runway and taxiway improvements to reduce delays, including a new sixth runway opening late next year at Logan.

Airlines that operate the most delay-prone flights blame everything from lightning storms to ground delays to plain bad luck. Continental spokesman Dave Messing said that on the Newark run, "almost all the time, the delays have been attributable to weather," which leads the Federal Aviation Administration to curtail takeoffs and landings.

"The afternoon flights are more likely to be delayed because it is the time of day when thunderstorms are more prevalent, it is when the airports have the highest arrival/departure loads, and it is when flights are more subject to the accumulation of delays arising on other flights performed by the same aircraft earlier in the day," Messing said. American spokesman Ned Raynolds also blamed Boston-Miami troubles on weather.

US Airways spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said a number of Philadelphia-Boston flights ran late in the first half of this year because of service and maintenance delays on the ground. US Airways has since improved operations in Philadelphia, she said, but overall on-time performance still suffered this summer because of storm delays.

Philadelphia-area technology executive Steven A. Forbes knows that firsthand. The global account executive with SAP America Inc. of Newton Square, Pa., and his colleagues have faced chronic delays returning home from Boston business trips on US Airways, including one Friday night flight about a year ago.

"It's Logan, so of course you call ahead, and it sounded like the delays were going to be horrible," Forbes recalled. Between US Airways' predictions of long delays for Philadelphia flights -- which normally take about 90 minutes -- and SAP executives' hard-learned experience, Forbes and several colleagues decided to head over to South Station to ride on Amtrak.

"We got home before any of our colleagues that stuck it out on the airplane," Forbes said. "In US Air's defense, it was weather-related. But it was a six-hour train ride, and we still beat the plane."

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