Dubious Title for O'Hare: World's Most Flight Cancellations
July 29, 2009
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  • Jon Hilkevitch

    January 28, 2008

    Chicago physician Julie Ericson knowingly paid about $100 more than she needed to for an airline ticket to Phoenix just so she could fly out of Midway Airport, which is dominated by low-cost air carriers.

    “This is the first time it’s costing me more to fly from Midway than from O’Hare, but it’s worth it just to avoid the painful experience and uncertainty of O’Hare,” said Ericson, 42, who has also booked trips to Las Vegas and Salt Lake City from Midway on Southwest Airlines.

    “I want the best shot at getting where I am going fast and not spending the whole time traveling or not arriving at all,” she said.

    By now, millions of weary passengers may be resigned to the idea “better late than never,” but it’s unfortunate that O’Hare International Airport is the titleholder for both late and never. Once the “world’s busiest airport,” O’Hare now claims “world’s most cancellations.”

    O’Hare’s record of suffering some of the worst flight delays in the U.S. has been well-documented over the years.

    O’Hare ranked dead last, at No. 32 among the busiest airports, for on-time departures last year, according to government statistics. More than 30 percent of flights left late.

    But with almost 4 percent of flights never getting off the ground, O’Hare also wears the crown for the most canceled flights, according to a new analysis conducted by the Tribune.

    Some 13,434 O’Hare departures were canceled through the first 11 months of last year, according to data provided by the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

    The O’Hare cancellations far exceed the number at any other airport. In fact, they represent more than double the flights that were scrubbed at the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which racked up 6,196 flight cancellations during the same period. O’Hare placed second, behind Hartsfield, for total flights last year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

    Only 1,172 flights were canceled at Midway from January through November last year, according to the transportation bureau. One percent of Midway departures were canceled.

    Winter worries

    For Chicago-area travelers, there is a lesson underpinning the tally.

    The lesson in choosing airlines and airports, when possible, is particularly worth remembering over the winter when snow and ice play more havoc than usual with airline schedules.

    Many factors influence on-time performance and cancellation rates. They include airport congestion, the efficiency of the airlines that dominate an airport, the level of airline competition, airline-labor union relations and the number of relatively short flights in which smaller regional jets are used to fly to cities in neighboring states. Those shorter trips, carrying fewer passengers, are generally among the first canceled in bad weather.

    The distance between Midway and O’Hare is just short of 14 miles as a bird flies, and the weather is about the same at both airports. But you wouldn’t think so after scanning the flight boards in the terminals at both airports this winter.

    Some 1,124 O’Hare departures were canceled, compared with only 69 at Midway, from Jan. 1 through 18, according to FlightStats, a transportation information service provided by Conducive Technology Corp.

    On Jan. 6, 17 and 23, when the Chicago Department of Aviation reported more than 200 daily cancellations at O’Hare, zero cancellations were reported at Midway.

    On Dec. 11, when freezing rain coated everything it touched with ice, more than 550 of O’Hare’s 1,300 scheduled daily departures were canceled. But Midway completed all except about 35 of its approximately 300 scheduled departures, officials said.

    “Midway recovers from some conditions quicker because we have a lower volume” of flights than at O’Hare, said Erin O’Donnell, the city’s managing deputy aviation commissioner at Midway.

    O’Hare served 926,973 flights in 2007. Midway handled 304,657 flights, ranking as the 27th busiest U.S. airport, according to the FAA.

    Those numbers translate into vastly different flight arrival rates to O’Hare and Midway. The number of planes that land on average at Midway is consistent, from a low of 28 planes to a high of 36 planes each hour, based on weather conditions and other factors, according to the FAA. But at O’Hare, depending whether two or three runways are used for arrivals, the landing capacity fluctuates from as few as 50 airplanes during a snowstorm to as many as 100 planes arriving each hour on a blue-sky day.

    “One big difference that many people don’t realize is that Midway is a one-runway arrival and a one-runway departure operation. It makes things steady and predictable, usually right around 32 to 34 flights an hour, all day long,” said Bob Flynn, the FAA’s traffic management officer for all Chicago-area airports.

    Linear strategy

    Southwest, which posts the best on-time performance among the major U.S. carriers, is also the nation’s leading point-to-point airline. The philosophy means that Southwest planes travel in a linear flow — Baltimore to Chicago to Las Vegas, for example.

    The linear strategy may greatly benefit travelers in a way that the traditional hub-and-spoke system often cannot, especially during bad weather. In the hub-and-spoke system, many planes shuttle back and forth between pairs of congested airports, or they zigzag across the country.

    “If a customer is going from Chicago to Boise [Idaho] on Southwest and his connecting flight from Las Vegas to Boise is canceled, which could happen, we have more options to still get him to the destination, perhaps from Chicago via Salt Lake City,” said Steve West, senior director at Southwest’s operations center in Dallas.

    In addition, Southwest customers benefit from the fact that the airline and its pilot and flight attendant unions are not undergoing the labor strife that is taking place at O’Hare involving American Airlines and United Airlines. Over the Christmas holiday many United pilots declined to volunteer for extra flights when other pilots had reached their maximum number of hours toward the end of the month. The result was thousands of canceled flights over the period.

    Regional jets represent another element in cancellations. The RJs, as they are called, share the same excellent safety record as larger mainline jets. But many regional jets are not flown in the most severe weather. It is often because some RJ pilots are not FAA-certified to fly in all conditions.

    “More than 40 percent of O’Hare’s flights today are on regional jets, while Midway has just a couple RJ flights,” Flynn said. “Some aircraft and pilots are not qualified to fly in severe low-visibility conditions, so the only option is waiting for the weather to improve or canceling the flight.”,0,5028042.column

    Date: 2008-01-28