Sunday, November 26, 2000

Airport numbers soaring

Growth brings problems

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HEBRON — The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, long considered one of the best in the world, is starting to feel the downside of success.

        Flights and passengers are at all-time highs, surpassing even national rates. But delays and cancellations are soaring, too. And mishaps on the runways are mounting.

        As the nation heads into the busiest air travel day of the year today,potential problems loom at the airport better known for winning the 1998 Official Airline Guide's Best Airport award and, earlier this month, a No. 3 ranking among midsized airports on a J.D. Power & Associates survey.

[photo] Jane Zachman of Ripley, Ohio, looks at the arrival screen to see if her daughter's flight is on time.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
        Airport officials aren't panicking yet. But they say delays — a problem highlighted by record late flights nationwide this summer — are a growing concern.

        “It's just a question of when it becomes unacceptable,” says Dale Huber, airport deputy director of aviation. “We're not to that point yet, and we'll probably never hit it. But it will get worse before it gets better.”

        An Enquirer analysis of three years of U.S. Department of Transportation data finds:

        • Through September of this year, 21.2 percent — more than one in five — of major airline incoming and outgoing flights were delayed more than 15 minutes. In 1998, the rate was 18.3 percent.

        • Major airline cancellations are up 18.3 percent from 1998. Travelers stand a nearly 3 percent chance that a flight will be canceled.

   Key statistics for the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport
        • The airport this year has had four runway “incursions,” incidents in which a plane landing or taking off comes unsafely close to another plane or object on the ground. That compares with four such incidents in the previous three years combined.

        Airport officials say double-digit increases in the numbers of passengers and flights in just five years is starting to tax the efficiencies of an airport that hasn't added runway space since 1991.

        And nationwide, the air travel system has been hammered by ongoing airline labor problems, bad weather and a lack of air-traffic control capacity.

        “The whole system is maxed out right now, and while Cincinnati is better than most, they're no different,” says Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

        “The lack of runway space is the biggest issue in aviation today - it dwarfs anything else. And if Cincinnati wants to keep its reputation as one of the best airports, they'd better sit up and notice these numbers.”

Growing pains
        Catch a flight today, and you'll join a record 2.24 million other fliers enduring U.S. air travel's busiest day of year.

        Nearly 1,200 flights — nearly one a minute — will be using Cincinnati's three runways. Planes that normally are 72 percent full will be flying with 85 percent of seats filled.

        “It used to be that the one place you could still enjoy flying was Cincinnati,” says Warren Shapiro, a Loveland cosmetic consultant who flies out of Cincinnati at least once a month.

        “They're still head and shoulders above some other airports, but even here, you have to look over your shoulder all the time and wonder about cancellations or making a connection.”

        In just five years, annual passenger counts here have increased 44 percent, from 15 million fliers in 1995 to 21.6 million last year. That compares to a 15.9 percent increase nationally during the same time.

        Nearly 23 million fliers are expected to use the Greater Cincinnati airport by year's end. And airport planners estimate that annual numbers will grow to 29.6 million in 2005 and 37.4 million in 2010.

        To accommodate the growth, airport officials are seeking federal approval to build a fourth runway that would cost $250 million.

        Officials say the runway would allow the airport to handle at least 150 more flights a day without adding delay time. But it could take five years, at a minimum, before a fourth runway opens.

        At peak times such as 7-9 a.m. and 5-7 p.m. daily, the airport handles about 110 flights an hour, or one take-off or landing every 33 seconds. In 1996, that number was about 100.

        Officials say the airport can't handle more any more peak-hour flights without adding to delays.

        “Compared with our growth, the delay numbers are very reasonable,” airport aviation director Bob Holscher says. “But we can't keep it up without more space.”

        Increased delays also could threaten Cincinnati's ability to continue as a major Delta Air Lines hub, which makes timely connections crucial.

        “We can still operate, and we're not going to shut down to new traffic,” Mr. Holscher says. “But as a hub, we wouldn't be able to do what we were created to do if traffic increased and we didn't have a runway.”

Longer waits
        With her 3-year-old and 8-year-old in tow, Sue Zenni of Wyoming was on her way in August to a dream vacation on Martha's Vineyard.

        Then a series of delays turned the trip to chaos.

        When she got to the Cincinnati airport at 6:30 a.m., she found her United flight to Chicago - which was to connect to Boston — was canceled.

        Because every other flight to the Windy City was delayed, the family waited eight hours in the airport for a connection. Once in Chicago, the family was rerouted again — this time, through Atlanta — since they'd missed their original connection to Boston.

        The delays caused the family to miss a scheduled ferry to the island, forcing another two-day unscheduled stop on the Massachusetts mainland.

        Mrs. Zenni says she will no longer schedule vacations or important trips with so many connections, because delays have made it impossible to predict arrival times.

        “I travel at least four to five times a year out of Cincinnati, and I have noticed a big jump in delays,” she says. “You're on the runway a lot longer, and it takes a lot longer to get to the gate after you land.”

        Nationally, 25 percent of flights are more than 15 minutes late, a number that's higher than Cincinnati's 21 percent. But Cincinnati is starting to catch up, and the airport's delay rate has increased faster than the national rate over the past three years.

        Still, officials are quick to cite the positive: As bad as it may seem here, delays are nothing compared to New York's LaGuardia International Airport, where flights in September were 43 minutes late on average.

Flights killed
        More delays aren't the only problem; canceled flights are, too.

        Business traveler Bret Schultze of East Walnut Hills says he has suffered through four canceled flights to and from Cincinnati in the past six months - compared to only three in the previous two years.

        “It's made me miss a lot of dinner meetings,” says Mr. Schultze, a software company salesman who flies out of Cincinnati at least three times a month. “I won't say it's caused me to lose any sales, but it is a huge aggravation.

        “It just kills time I could be using to be making sales calls or having meetings to be standing in line to catch another plane.”

        During this summer's travel crisis between June and September, 3.1 percent of all major airline flights in Cincinnati were canceled - the worst stretch since records have been kept.

        Mr. Shapiro, the Loveland salesman, says three of his flights home from the East Coast were canceled this summer, including two in June, compared with just one last summer.

        He says he's also noticed that his flights sit on Cincinnati tarmacs a lot longer this year, compared with previous years when there were only two or three planes ahead in line for takeoff.

        “It's gotten so we're waiting 15 to 20 minutes on average to take off once we pull out of the gate,” Mr. Shapiro says. “The lines are a lot longer now.”

Runway confusion

        Nobody knows whether the increase in the number of planes has led to more runway mishaps.

        But four times this year, planes have come too close to other planes on the runway or objects on the ground. Aviation officials call these incidents "incursions," or cases that violate aviation guidelines for safety.

        In two cases, pilots misunderstood air traffic control directions and started taking off without clearance. Another time, a mechanic began driving a plane to the repair hangar across the wrong runway. In the fourth case, an air traffic controller gave conflicting directions to two planes for the same runway.

        No one was hurt, and no collisions occurred. Comair was involved in three of the incidents.

        Comair spokesman Nick Miller says the cases need to be evaluated separately and not considered part of a trend.

        Airport officials also say that Cincinnati has one of the lowest incursion rates of major U.S. airports.

        This year's incidents translate to 0.82 incursions per 100,000 landings and takeoffs. Daugherty Field in Long Beach, Calif., handles about the same amount of traffic as Cincinnati, but has a rate of 1.78 incursions per 100,000 landings and takeoffs.

        “We're all trying to crowd into a finite area of concrete, but we can only handle so many departures and arrivals,” says Mitchell Serber, a Comair pilot who serves as central air safety chairman for the local Comair pilots' union. “Until they build more runways, it's something that we're stuck with.”

        Mr. Huber, the airport's deputy aviation director, disagrees.

        “Four is unacceptable ... one is unacceptable,” he says. “We can't say it's bound to happen with increased traffic, because that's accepting even one. We want to be at zero.”

What's next?
        No one can say how bad delays, cancellations and other problems might get, especially since problems at other airports nationally have such a ripple effect here.

        But one thing is certain: Traffic growth will continue while runway space won't — for now.

        Officials at Delta and Comair, the airlines that handle 88 percent of airport traffic here, say they're continuing to plan on more growth.

        “We need to be proactive in our approach, and that includes looking at a terminal master plan as well as runway space,” Comair's Mr. Miller says.

        For example, he says, Comair is considering using the main Delta terminal for flights because of overcrowding at Comair's 8-year-old facility a short bus ride away. Adjustments in flight schedules and staffing also should help, he says.

        However, airport planner Chad Everett says increased travel will add delays to flights. He says it ultimately will be up to passengers to determine the airport's efficiency.

        “We can fit as many flights as the airlines schedule, but there will be delays,” Mr. Everett says. “It's all about what level of pain the airline passenger will endure before looking for another airport or mode of transportation.

        “And if it gets to the point where people don't fly, the airline will have to make an adjustment.”

- Airport numbers soaring
Officials say growth requires fourth runway
Worst delays: flights to Newark

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