Most Flights Are Late, and It May Only Get Worse
July 29, 2009
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    NEWARK – Passengers are understandably angry when they are stuck on a delayed flight. But they should not necessarily be surprised – especially those traveling on flights like American Airlines 1659, departing every afternoon from Newark Liberty International Airport to Chicago.

    Flight 1659 is the most chronically delayed of all flights on a full-size jet operated by a major domestic airline. It arrived at O’Hare Airport at least 15 minutes late 84 percent of the time during a 12-month period ended in June.

    And when Flight 1659 was late, it was really late – an average of 87 minutes behind schedule, or roughly the time it takes for the American MD-80 to actually fly the route.

    Bob Cordes, a vice president for planning at American, a unit of the AMR Corporation, has at his disposal a formidable array of tools to try to make the airline’s fleet of 668 big jets run on time, including advanced scheduling software.

    But he often feels powerless to remedy persistently late flights. For Flight 1659, Mr. Cordes said, he has even sought outside help: “We went to church and lit a few candles.”

    In all, more than 100 domestic flights are officially late – by at least 15 minutes – 70 percent or more of the time. And most of those arrive, on average, more than an hour later than scheduled, the Transportation Department found in an analysis of a year of flights. (A full year’s data smoothes out the effect of seasonal miseries caused by summer thunderstorms and winter snow.)

    “It is such an unbelievable mess out there,” said Cheryl Geib, who, as corporate travel manager for the Grant Thornton accounting firm, arranges trips for hundreds of workers and then listens to many of them complain about delays.

    But the worst flights still draw plenty of passengers. Why? For many, the air travel system is in such disarray – planes stranded for eight hours on a snowy tarmac, flights canceled when pilots do not show up – that it might be foolhardy to try to guess where trouble lurks.

    “There’s no way I’m hanging myself out to dry by pointing out late flights,” Ms. Geib said, adding dryly that the flight chosen as a smarter alternative would no doubt end up late.

    Fliers might expect some short-term relief, as a summer marked by widespread flight cancellations and delays, and the most crowded planes in the history of jet travel, comes to an end.

    But the long-term outlook is not good, and travelers should brace themselves for a growing number of chronically late planes, grim clones of Flight 1659.

    The reasons include an overtaxed air traffic control system that is probably at least a decade away from being replaced, and a handful of big hub airports that at times are operating above their practical capacity.

    Airlines, to save money, compressed their schedules in recent years – often planning departures with 30 minutes or less on the ground between flights. That makes it next to impossible to catch up for the day, once a plane hopping from city to city falls behind.

    Newark Airport has more than half of the chronically late flights. Its operations are particularly vulnerable to weather problems, said Leo Prusak, the New York district manager for the Federal Aviation Administration, who also oversees Kennedy and La Guardia airports.

    American Flight 1659 is scheduled to take off at 5:55 p.m., the busiest time of the day, just as a long line of overseas flights leaves Newark and dozens of regional jets prepare to carry connecting passengers to smaller cities.

    Continental Airlines and its regional jet operator, ExpressJet, account for most of the flights at Newark. And ExpressJet, operating there under Continental’s name, has more than one-third of the chronically late flights on the Transportation Department’s list.

    American, with a smaller presence at Newark, suffers along, as do many of its passengers. On June 20, Flight 1659, scheduled to land in Chicago at 7:35 p.m., did not deliver its bleary-eyed passengers until 1:31 a.m., according to FlightAware, a company that tracks flight performance.

    Travel experts repeatedly urge fliers to book trips in the morning to minimize the risk of delays. But for many people, Flight 1659 offers the promise of convenience, at least in theory.

    Kerman Ali and Kinya Jett, chose Flight 1659 on Wednesday because they were able to spend most of the last day of their honeymoon in Manhattan wandering around Times Square before heading to the airport. They were relatively lucky – the plane pushed back from the gate 37 minutes late, but made up some time in the air, arriving only 19 minutes late.

    Ms. Jett, 31, a management trainee with Walgreen, bought the tickets on about six months earlier to save money. “We only fly about once a year,” she said.

    Some business travelers plan their schedules defensively, with the help of Web sites like Flight- Aware or

    FlightAware offers daily arrival times going back four months. FlightStats provides flight ratings (American 1659, unsurprisingly, received a “very poor” rating because of its many late arrivals and cancellations).

    US Airways is also struggling with delays at Newark, and is trying to get its flights to and from Charlotte, a major hub, off the chronically late list.

    David Seymour, a vice president, said the airline even added another plane to the Charlotte-Newark rotation, without scheduling a flight, to double the time on the ground between some flights and reduce delays.

    “That’s a very expensive investment. It’s a Band-Aid,” he said. “We don’t want our customers to see those chronically late flights so they book away from it.”

    Indeed, W. Douglas Parker, US Airways’ chief executive, said many delays could be avoided if airlines did not crowd flight departures around peak hours.

    But the first carrier to retreat from those popular departure times, he said, would be hurt in the marketplace, as passengers continued to book at the most-desired hours – on other airlines.

    “An airline spreading its flights over the course of the day would lose business,” he said.

    In April, the Transportation Department said it was investigating domestic airlines for publishing unrealistic schedules. It said it was considering levying fines on as many as eight carriers.

    Since then, some airlines have held discussions with the agency, but no formal action has been taken.

    “A variety of consumer protections are under consideration,” a spokesman for the department, Bill Mosley, said, adding that these include “requiring airlines to report chronically delayed flights before passengers buy airline tickets.”

    Some travel specialists agree that more realistic schedules would go a long way toward solving the delay problem, even though airlines would presumably be loath to give up the revenue that a tighter schedule, with more flights, offers them.

    “There’s something wrong with the system when airlines are allowed to print a timetable that has flights which, on average, have one hour-plus delays,” David Rowell wrote in his newsletter,

    Mr. Cordes, the American executive, rejiggered Newark-to-Chicago flights in April. He dropped an 8:35 p.m. departure from Newark because it was so often late or canceled and moved two afternoon flights, including Flight 1659, to earlier slots. American also increased time on the ground at Newark between flights to build a cushion into the schedule.

    At the least, he hopes to get No. 1659 off the Transportation Department’s monthly list of flights that are late 80 percent or more of the time.

    It remained there in June, the latest month reported. At that hour, at that airport, relief will not come easily.

    “That clearly is a chronic challenge,” Mr. Cordes said. He added that he had even contemplated retaining the flight, while taking a step to perhaps lift its curse. “I’d like to get rid of that number,” he said.


    NEW YORK TIMES 2007-09-03false