Delay-plagued Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport could get even worse this summer.
It was listed as one of six airports considered potential ''trouble spots'' for vacation travelers, according to testimony given before a U.S. Senate aviation subcommittee Thursday.
Last summer, 26 percent of planes arrived late to Fort Lauderdale, according to the report. And this year, 23 percent more departures are scheduled, suggesting more delays to come, according to a report from the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The delays reflect the negative part of a rebound in air travel, the strongest pace since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Fort Lauderdale and the other ''airports to watch'' -- Philadelphia, LaGuardia, Newark, Washington-Dulles and Atlanta -- have similar challenges: dropping airfares, the rise of the low-cost airlines and more people flying.
''In many markets, traffic and delays are back at a rate as severe as 2000, when travel disruptions were at their peak,'' said DOT Inspector General Kenneth M. Mead. ''And in some markets they are worse.''
Just before Memorial Day weekend, the beginning of the summer travel season, Mead and Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Marion Blakey on Thursday testified about the potential for serious delays.
Fort Lauderdale has been one of the fastest-growing airports in the country in recent years, as discount airlines have flocked here, US Airways has established a hub for Latin America and the Caribbean, and major airlines have beefed up flights to counter the new competitors.
In the first quarter of this year, Fort Lauderdale's traffic grew 15 percent; 37 percent of its flights during that time were delayed.
March is Fort Lauderdale's peak period, and airport spokesman Steve Bellamy said summer traffic should be a bit smoother.
However, summertime brings thunderstorms, which tend to wreak havoc on traffic.
Disruptions are spread throughout the entire nation's airspace, affecting everything from when a flight arrives to how much time an airplane has to refuel.
''Airports don't operate in a vacuum,'' FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said.
Miami International hopes to capitalize on Fort Lauderdale's problems. The airport is launching an ad campaign reminding residents of its shorter delay times and recent improvements, including another runway.
''That's the message we're trying to get out to South Florida now. You do have that advantage at Miami,'' airport spokesman Greg Chin said.
Fort Lauderdale's single runway for commercial jets and its rapid growth add fuel to the ongoing debate over expanding the airport's south runway to handle commercial flights. For decades, that plan has drawn the ire of hundreds of neighboring residents who could be forced from their homes by the added noise.
RUNWAYS A PRIORITY
The inspector general's report emphasized the importance of new runway projects and keeping them on schedule.
But it also conceded solutions weren't always easy to accomplish, especially when neighboring land was limited.
''That's a small airport,'' said Rae Sandler, president of one of the homeowners' associations fighting the runway project. ''Land-wise, it's small and contained. When is enough enough?''
Only 67 to 77 runways have been added across the nation in the past 20 years, said Richard Gritta, an aviation economist at the University of Portland in Oregon.
Broward County Administrator Roger Desjarlais said Fort Lauderdale was seeing about all the traffic it could handle, and the challenge now was accommodating it all.
''Given current airfield conditions and the number of gates, it would be fair to say the airport is at build-out,'' Desjarlais said.
That raises the question when Fort Lauderdale's limited capacity will force airlines to start looking to West Palm Beach -- which had even worse delays this year than Fort Lauderdale -- or Miami for space.
One low-cost airline, JetBlue, already has talked about adding Miami flights next year.
If airlines use up Fort Lauderdale's space, ''there's no question they won't put up with it,'' said Peter Kirsch, an attorney specializing in airport development. ''The question is, where is the breaking point?''