Airlines Need Something to Blame, Weather We Like It or Not

Mother Nature is only one of the excuses the airline industry is giving for the growing number of flight delays and cancellations.
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There's no lack of excuses for the soaring number of flights delayed at airports across the country. Airlines, federal officials and industry watchers invariably blame the weather, outdated air-control equipment, too many flights, not enough runways and a government agency -- the

Federal Aviation Administration

-- that has grown too bureaucratic and relies too heavily on politicians for money and badly needed changes.

Plenty of reasons for the planes stacking up out on the runways of America. But are there any answers? Passengers are saying -- some are yelling -- there'd better be. Because from Newark, N.J., to Las Vegas, Miami to Cincinnati and Detroit to Chicago, delays are piling up like a traveling sales rep's frequent-flier miles. And, not surprisingly, the number of passenger gripes is way up.

Those who share a fuselage with a couple of hundred people who are late getting home or to an important business meeting say the flying public is fighting mad about not getting to their destinations on time. Joel Stark, who has worked for 20 years as a flight attendant for several airlines and who operates a travel-related Internet site called

Air Travel Pro

, says the delays are fueling more incidents of ugly air rage. "Any time a flight is delayed, it causes angst," he says.

"You've got the business traveler whose meeting gets screwed up, the family missing its connection to a vacation destination. That's human nature. Folks pay a lot of money to fly. They expect to be on time. When they aren't, they feel they haven't gotten their money's worth."

Then there must be a lot of people out there feeling fleeced. Consider these figures from the FAA:

The number of delayed flights -- defined as a flight that's 15 minutes or more late in taking off -- between April and July increased 38% from the same period a year ago, for an average of 39,376 delayed flights per month. For July alone, delays rose 70% over last year, to 43,612.

The airline industry's complaint rate per 100,000 passengers doubled in the first half of this year to 1.86 from 0.93 in 1998. Delayed or canceled flights were the grist for most of the complaints.

The worst airport offenders, those with the lowest percentage of on-time arrivals through June, are Miami, with 59.8% of its flights on time; Chicago, 64.6%; Newark, N.J., 64.7%; Philadelphia, 65.2%; Seattle, 68.5%; Boston, 69%; San Francisco, 69.3%; Baltimore, 70.2%; Washington Reagan, 70.9%; and St. Louis, 71.3%.

During the first five months of this year, the following airports had the greatest increase in the rate of delays per 1,000 takeoffs and landings: Detroit, 267%; Las Vegas, 168%; Chicago Midway, 158%; Cincinnati, 142%; and Dallas-Fort Worth, 131%.

The airlines are acutely aware of the problems, and although few have offered actual solutions, they're trying to respond to angry customers. Both

American Airlines

(AMR)

and

United Airlines

(UAL) - Get Report

last week sent apology letters to their frequent-flier passengers who'd been delayed at Chicago's O'Hare Airport.

And last week the FAA finally stepped in, pledging to allow its Herndon, Va., national air command center to have more authority over regional centers spread across the country. This move would centralize and coordinate traffic flow and patterns in bad weather -- a major culprit in flight delays and cancellations -- and when runways are closed or equipment fails in a control tower.

FAA administrator Jane Garvey, in a letter to airline executives, said other changes are forthcoming, including some on the ground. For example, in response to passenger complaints that they can't get any information about why their flights are delayed and when they'll be taking off, planes grounded by the weather will be assigned a departure time -- albeit projected -- that can be given to passengers so they have an idea of what's happening. It will also help stranded passengers make alternative plans or notify clients, coworkers or spouses of when they expect to arrive.

One solution, say many in the industry, is a long overdue but expensive upgrade of the nation's air-traffic-control system. "The overriding situation across the country," says

Delta Air Lines

(DAL) - Get Report

spokesman Dave Anderson, "is a great need to start examining the increase in capacity and consider the technological advances that will allow carriers" to handle the problem.

But a bill authorizing the FAA to spend $13 billion over five years is hung up in the

Senate

. A vote could come in September when lawmakers return from vacation.

Doug Abbey, an airline consultant based in Washington, says changes in technology taking place this year also have had an impact on the growing number of delays. For example, new equipment being installed at the tower in Cleveland led to delays there and in other nearby cities, such as Detroit. "A lot of airports have had equipment down, fixing and testing Y2K problems," he explains.

The Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport -- a Delta hub -- could help solve its delays with a new $85 million, federally funded, 8,000-foot runway, spokesperson Ted Bushelman says. Traffic at the airport was up 6.5% last year to 21.2 million, a growth rate four times the national average.

Continental Airlines

(CAL) - Get Report

Chairman Gordon Bethune has offered one of the more intriguing suggestions on the matter: privatizing the FAA. The federal agency does a poor job managing air space, has been far too slow to modernize equipment and is too dependent on money from Washington, he said last week on the Sunday morning

ABC News

program "This Week."

The FAA is considering taking the agency private, but such a move is a long way off and may never get past the discussion stage. Yet with all the debate, the FAA claims Mother Nature is the mother of all delay causers: She's responsible for 75% of them. For his part, Bethune calls that "a poor excuse."

But intense storms did indeed strand lots of passengers this past winter. Dozens of

Northwest Airlines

(NWAC)

flights had to be canceled during one heavy storm in Detroit, resulting in a rash of complaints and even a few lawsuits from passengers stranded on the runway for seven hours.

So, is a solution coming? Maybe. But it'll probably be delayed.

Patrick Crowley is a political reporter and columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer. At the time of publication, he held no position in any securities mentioned, although holdings can change at any time. Crowley can be reached at

crowleys@cinci.infi.net.