The four major airlines at Myrtle Beach International Airport are among the nation's worst for on-time performance, mishandled baggage and other customer-service issues, according to a report this month by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Myrtle Beach International also ranks near the middle of airports nationally for flights arriving and departing on time, the report says.
The late local flights, often a result of bad weather and routes that connect through backed-up hub airports, reflect a growing national trend as an aging air-traffic infrastructure struggles to keep up with passenger counts that have surpassed pre-Sept. 11, 2001, levels.
Experts say the delays aren't likely to improve without major investments in the country's air-travel system.
"The airlines are being constrained by an air-traffic control system that is billions of dollars behind where it needs to be financially and decades behind where it needs to be technologically," said Tim Sieber, an airline analyst with Evergreen, Colo.-based The Boyd Group.
The number of air-traffic controllers and the equipment they use hasn't kept pace with growing passenger counts, Sieber said, slowing the pace of takeoffs and landings and often keeping airlines from meeting tight schedules.
"The air-traffic control system owns the production line, so to speak, and that production line is being artificially constrained," he said.
But airlines aren't without fault, experts say. Some carriers try to cram too many flights into too short a time period, and almost all base their schedules on a best-case scenario that doesn't include any extra time for weather, mechanical or layover issues.
"Our evidence suggests that airlines choose their schedules based on the performance of a flight on very good days, even if, on average, such good days are relatively rare," Christopher Mayer, a Columbia University professor, wrote in a recent study titled "Why Do Airlines Systematically Schedule Their Flights to Arrive Late."
Mayer says there also is little financial incentive for airlines to fix their schedules because consumers accept tardiness as a tradeoff for cheap fares.
While the number of late arrivals during the first six months of 2005 is about even with the same period a year ago, federal statistics show there have been 37,360 more late departures this year than in 2004.
In addition, there have been about 10,000 more canceled flights through the first six months of 2005 compared with the same period a year ago.
At Myrtle Beach International, flights for all carriers in June arrived late 23.1 percent of the time and departed late 21.3 percent of the time. The federal government considers a flight to be "on time" if it takes off or lands within 15 minutes of its scheduled departure or arrival time.
The June numbers, the most recent month for which statistics are available, put Myrtle Beach International in the middle of the pack for on-time performance at 278 airports nationwide - No. 112 in the nation for arrivals and No. 181 for departures.
Delays could get worse in Myrtle Beach as more flights and passengers vie for space in a crowded terminal. The airport's traffic grew at nearly twice the national pace from 2003 to 2004, and Myrtle Beach International set a one-month record with 92,258 passengers in July.
Bob Kemp, Horry County's airports director, said soaring passenger counts are evidence that a bigger terminal is needed. The county has approved a $200 million plan for a new terminal that would add seven gates for new air service.
"The growth just reaffirms the need for additional terminal facilities," Kemp said.
Flight delays in Myrtle Beach often are caused by a snowball effect of delays at large feeder airports, such as Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Charlotte (N.C.) Douglas International Airport.