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.
AirTran and Atlantic Southeast Airlines, a Delta connector, fly to Myrtle Beach from Atlanta's Hartsfield, the world's busiest airport with about 85 million passengers per year. Atlanta has one of the nation's worst on-time performance records, with nearly one in three flights arriving or departing late.
US Airways makes most of its connections to Myrtle Beach through Charlotte, which has about 26 million passengers per year. Charlotte's on-time performance is similar to Myrtle Beach International's.
Delays at bigger airports are frequent because of the sheer number of flights coming and going, and those delays filter down to connecting airports, such as Myrtle Beach International.
Unpredictable summer weather, from afternoon thunderstorms to hurricanes, also can wreak havoc on an airline's schedule.
"We see a marked difference on days when there is good weather compared with days when the weather is bad," said Amy Kudwa, spokeswoman for US Airways, the dominant carrier at Myrtle Beach with nearly two-thirds of all passengers.
US Airways had a national on-time percentage of 75.7 percent for the 12 months that ended June 30, according to the DOT report. US Airways ranked No. 15 of 20 airlines included in the report.
Airlines flying through Atlanta fared worse. AirTran was No. 17 nationally with an on-time performance of 75.1 percent while ASA was No. 18 with an on-time performance of 72.7 percent.
Flight delays weren't the only problems. ASA had the nation's highest rate of mishandled and lost baggage claims, with 18.47 reports for every 1,000 passengers during the first six months of 2005.
US Airways (11.54 complaints per 1,000) and Comair (11.48 complaints per 1,000) also ranked near the bottom of the lost-luggage list. Those two airlines also had the highest rate of passenger complaints for various issues including ticketing and customer service from Jan. 1 through June 30.
Jim Whitehurst, Delta's chief operating officer, recently announced a series of changes to help improve on-time performance at the Atlanta airport, including reducing the time airplanes spend on the ground between flights and using bigger jets during peak times and smaller planes during off-peak hours.
"The ongoing changes at our Atlanta hub further support the objectives ... to improve on-time reliability, reduce airport congestion and create a better airport experience for our customers," Whitehurst said. "We are extremely pleased with our results to date."
Robert Fornaro, the president of AirTran, blames unpredictable weather for his airline's poor performance.
"You can have extremely bad weather, and then by 8 or 9 o'clock at night, everything is running late," Fornaro told The New York Times this month. "This has been a much more stormy summer than in 2004."
AirTran officials didn't respond to a request for information from The Sun News.
Sieber, who worked for Delta in Atlanta during the late 1980s, agrees bad weather can throw airlines off their schedule.
"One thunderstorm and the Atlanta airport can go down the tubes," he said.
But there's much more at work than summer weather.
Sieber said most flights are operating at between 80 percent and 90 percent capacity, leaving airlines with few options when weather or mechanical problems arise. Airlines in the past might have canceled flights because of those problems and put passengers on another airplane.
"They can't do that now because the next flight is full, too," Sieber said, adding that the only alternatives now are to wait out the problem and miss the schedule or cancel the flight and send passengers to a competing airline, whose flights also are probably full.
"Poor on-time performance is the airlines' fault to the extent that people want to buy their products - the fares are ridiculously low," Sieber said. "There's a highly competitive market that benefits consumers because they'll get somewhere cheaply. They just might not get there on time."
Airport officials say what might appear to be the most obvious solution - stretch airlines' schedules to give them more time between flights and more padding if something goes wrong - won't work because many airports, including Myrtle Beach International, already are operating near capacity. There simply isn't any more time that can be built into the schedule without cutting back on service.
"The lines are longer than we'd like them to be," Kemp said, referring to the backlog of passengers waiting for flights at the airport.
In an age of high fuel costs, low fares and bankruptcy filings, airlines don't have any financial incentive to cut back on schedules.
The industry lost $30 billion between 2000-04 and is on track to lose another $5 billion this year, despite increased emphasis on efficiency.
"The potential revenue benefits from reducing passenger delays are relatively small," Mayer wrote in his study, "and do not justify the additional labor costs associated with lengthening schedules."
Or, as Sieber puts it, flight delays are one tradeoff for the low fares airlines are offering. When it comes down to time or money, today's consumer is choosing the cash.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press