Airlines Have a Long, Hot Summer Ahead

Big crowds, unhappy staffs 'cut to the bone' spell trouble.

Regional carrier Atlantic Southeast Airlines, which feeds passengers to Delta's jet flights, had the industry's worst on-time performance in 2006: An average of only 66% of flights arrived within 15 minutes of schedule all year long. In an effort to improve service, Delta is taking over ASA's bag handling June 1. Industrywide, about 75% of flights last year were on time.

More passengers also face rides on regionals' small jets and turboprops. Many small and midsize cities today are served only by regional airlines as financially strapped major airlines have moved big jets to longer, more profitable routes. Next month, airplanes with 75 or fewer seats will make 48% of the scheduled-airline departures in the continental USA, up from 41% in June 2000, according to a USA TODAY analysis of data from Back Aviation Solutions.

Clearing space for planes

Travelers may get a little help this summer from improvements at key airports. At Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, the nation's busiest, an end-around taxiway opened last month that makes it possible for planes to get from the airfield to gates without crossing an active runway, eliminating 200 runway crossings a day.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines says that shaves a minute off the time it once took every jet crossing the runway to reach a gate.

"That's a huge" difference that can translate into better on-time performance, says Delta operations chief Joe Kolshak.

At New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, where Delta has sharply increased trans-Atlantic flights, that airline is hiring about 500 people to handle bags. That's important because this will be the first full summer for the Transportation Security Administration's liquids restrictions for carry-on bags. Now, passengers can take only 3 ounces of any one liquid in carry-on luggage, but there are no restrictions on liquids in checked bags.

As a result, the volume of checked luggage at virtually every airline has jumped at least 20%, straining baggage operations, since TSA began the restrictions last August after a terror scare in London.

JFK-based JetBlue Airways, which ended 2006 with one of the industry's highest rates of flight delays, has tweaked its schedule to improve on-time performance. Rob Maruster, senior vice president of operational planning, says JetBlue has lengthened its flying day and added time between flights to make the schedule more reliable. JetBlue also added more spare aircraft to reduce delays when planes break down.

Meanwhile, Bonanno says US Airways is out to prove the Philadelphia airport isn't synonymous with lousy bag handling. Since December, the airline has added about 500 workers at Philadelphia, as well as new luggage carts to replace old ones that regularly broke down.

"I've heard stories that people could order a pizza, eat it and then their bags would come up," Bonanno says. "When something breaks, we fix it now."


Contributing: Barbara Hansen

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