May 23--Travelers departing small airports in states like Arkansas and Montana are more likely to have their flight canceled than those flying from a big city, a new government study found.
And while big and small communities experience about the same number of flight delays, planes tend to wait longer when leaving from small airports.
The differences in cancellations and delays are due in part to economic choices carriers make, according to the study by Todd Zinser, the Transportation Department's acting inspector general.
Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Aviation Subcommittee, requested the analysis in August. The report considered two airports in Burns' home state: Butte and Helena. Both experienced more cancellations and longer delays than the large cities studied.
"[Burns] wants to know if small airports are being disproportionally affected and, really, whether they're being taken advantage of," said spokesman Matt Mackowiak.
While delays and cancellations frustrate travelers from any destination, they can be more problematic for those coming from small airports. Those cities have fewer airlines serving them, and carriers that do may have only a few daily departures. During the first quarter of 2006, scheduled service at small community airports was 17 percent lower than during the same period in 2000, the federal study found.
In addition to economic considerations, it found other reasons for the higher levels of cancellations at small airports. Among them: Aircraft and navigational aids sometimes are more limited than what is available at larger airports.
The analysis considered cancellation and delay information from 14 airports. The data was collected in January 2005, and the level of service at some airports has changed in the intervening 17 months.
O'Hare International was among the large airports studied. During the monthlong period, 9.7 percent of flights from small communities to O'Hare were canceled, while 6.8 percent of those coming from large airports were scrapped.
Delay levels were nearly identical: 37 percent of flights coming to O'Hare from small airports were delayed versus 36 percent from large airports. But those coming from small cities were delayed an average 75 minutes versus an average 70-minute delay from large communities.
Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport was among those cited in the analysis.
"We're pretty much at the mercy of the hubs our carriers are flying into and the air traffic saturation at those hubs," said Kelly Johnson, the airport's director. "That's what creates the ground stop. Sometimes, there's simply not a landing spot for these guys to go into."
The Federal Aviation Administration can order flight delays and put in place airspace restrictions in response to bad weather and other problems. But the FAA leaves it up to the airlines when deciding which flights to cancel.
Those decisions are made after considering a host of factors, sometimes running them through a sophisticated computer program. American Airlines dubs its the "cancellator."
"In bad, bad weather we have a computer program that goes in and weighs all these variables, runs it through all these algorithms and decides what's the best to cancel," said spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan.
Travelers sometimes worry that if they are not on a full flight, it will be among the first to be grounded.
"You're not just looking at how full is this flight, you're looking at where does this aircraft need to be later today, and what are bookings like for that flight," said Sabrena Suite, spokeswoman for SkyWest, a regional carrier for United Airlines and Delta Air Lines.
In addition to O'Hare, the large city airports the report studied were Washington's Dulles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Denver and Salt Lake City.