BY DEBBIE MESSINA
NORFOLK -- Nearly one-fourth of all flights in and out of Norfolk International Airport last year were delayed, the worst record at the airport in the eight years of U.S. statistics released Wednesday.
The U.S. Bureau of Transportation reports that 27.7 percent of Norfolk arrivals were delayed in 2006, and 20.2 percent of departures were delayed. A flight is considered delayed if it arrives or departs 15 minutes or more after the scheduled time.
The national picture is similar. Almost 23 percent of arrivals were late and about 20 percent of departures - the worst rate for departures in the eight years - and the second-worst for arrivals.
"Anytime we have service issues that impact on the ability to provide a quality product, it's concerning," said Wayne Shank , deputy executive director of the airport. "We do not have the ability to control many of the factors that contribute to these delays."
The federal agency reports that the national aviation system, air carrier delays and late arriving aircraft are to be blamed for the bulk of the delays in Norfolk.
Across the water, Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport experienced the same trend: 26 percent of arrivals were delayed as well as 23 percent of departures.
The airlines say the problem lies mostly with an antiquated air traffic control system.
"The air traffic control system is not capable of handling the volume of aircraft in it today," said David A. Castelveter , spokesman for the Air Transport Association , a trade organization for the major airlines. "And it's definitely not capable of handling the volume when there is weather."
The airlines are lobbying Congress for a better system. "Until that happens, things are going to get worse; it's not going to get better," he said.
Castelveter added that the system is not unsafe. In fact, the delays result from ensuring safety in poor conditions with the outdated system, he said.
For a short time last year, airlines experienced extra delays while adjusting to new security rules that banned liquids from planes, requiring more bags to be checked, Castelveter said.
Every year, some late flights are blamed on mechanical problems with aircraft. "Carriers are not going to fly an airplane when it's not operating properly," he said.
Southwest Airlines' Norfolk station manager Brian Davis said when planes are delayed locally, it's often because of backups at their destinations or origins, especially at the larger hubs.
At Chicago O'Hare, for instance, 28 percent of both arrivals and departures were late in 2006 . New York LaGuardia had 32 percent of arrivals delayed and 22 percent of departures. In Atlanta, 26 percent of arrivals and departures were late.
Davis also said Southwest's operating model calls for turning around a plane at the gate within 25 minutes . That can be challenging when planes are full or nearly full, like during the summers here in Norfolk when Southwest's planes are, on average, 95 percent full.
Norfolk's top three carriers had among the best on-time performance of all air carriers last year. Southwest was ranked third , US Airways was fourth , and Delta was sixth . Hawaiian Airlines was first .
n\Reach Debbie Messina at (757) 446-2588 or debbie.messina@ pilotonline.com.
"Throughout the day, it gets worse," said Darryl Jenkins, an airline analyst from Northern Virginia. "You'd never, ever want to book a last flight out."
Airline hassles are on the rise: More passengers found themselves bumped, their flights delayed or their bags lost last year than in 2005, a study found.
The Transportation Department in May began investigating flights that are at least 15 minutes late more than 70 percent of the time.