Tuesday, August 22, 2000

Fliers seething in the skies

Airline execs summoned to Washington over delays

By Amy Higgins
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A group of Cincinnatians could have driven to Orlando, Fla., in almost as much time as it took them to fly there this month.

        The increasingly unfriendly skies kept the 32 tourists for six hours at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

        “Needless to say, they were not happy campers,” said Brenda Banks, the Wyoming travel agent who organized the trip.

        It's a common story this summer, being called the worst in history in terms of delayed flights. More than one-quarter of May's flights were delayed.

        With hundreds of thousands of problem flights and millions of inconvenienced passengers, U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater on Monday summoned airline, union and airport leaders to Washington — including Delta Air Lines' chief executive Leo Mullin.

        After the meeting, Mr. Slater said the airlines agreed to improve notification to the Federal Aviation Administration when they have flight delays or cancellations so air-traffic controllers can better use available air space.

        As for the immediate problems at the nation's overtaxed airports, Mr. Slater said the greatest hope for relief is the end of the vacation season, which has helped raise 2000's passenger total toward an expected record of 670 million — up 20 million from 1999.

        Poor weather, antiquated air-traffic control, labor problems and record air travel demand are all blamed in the more than 84,400 late flights in May, the most recent month with industry-wide figures available. Weather and air-traffic control problems alone accounted for more than 44,000 flight delays in July.

        Ms. Banks couldn't have anticipated the labor issues plaguing United when she booked the group trip to Walt Disney World in De cember. And it's little consolation that her group was not nearly alone.

        Department of Transportation figures for May show United's flights to its hub at O'Hare are among the most delinquent flights from Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. The statistics consider any flight more than 15 minutes off its scheduled arrival time as late.

        During May, half of United's Chicago-to-Cincinnati flights were more than 15 minutes off-schedule. They averaged 23 minutes late, more than any other Cincinnati-bound flight.

        Only Delta Air Lines' flights from Cincinnati to Seattle missed the 15-minute window more often. Nearly five of 10 of those flights were late during May.

        Cincinnati travelers also would have a 1-in-3 chance of getting a late Delta flight to San Francisco and Portland. Flights from New York's Kennedy airport, Los Angeles and Newark to Cincinnati top the list of Delta's most delayed Cincinnati-bound flights, also all late about a third of the time.

        Cincinnati is Delta's second-largest hub, with more than nine of 10 Cincinnati travelers flying Delta or its subsidiary, Comair.

        Delta spokeswoman Cindi Kurczewski said reasons for the delays could be varied. Western airports Seattle, Portland and San Francisco often have weather problems, while eastern airports Newark and New York have more air-traffic control problems.

        Overall, the local airport had the best on-time record of the nation's 29 largest airports in May. Almost 82 percent of flights here were on-time, besting the average of 73 percent.

        The Associated Press and Cox News Service contributed to this report.

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