Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Flight Delays: Why They're Getting Longer ; Airlines Attribute the Problem to Flawed Air-Traffic Control System,

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Flight Delays: Why They're Getting Longer ; Airlines Attribute the Problem to Flawed Air-Traffic Control System,

Article excerpt

On an average day this summer, 140,000 people sat stranded in airline terminals or buckled into their seats on planes that sat simmering on the tarmac waiting for delayed flights to take off.

That's a record, which has helped fuel a soaring number of complaints about the airlines to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In July, complaints were up 169 percent over the same month in 1998.

But are the airlines really to blame?

This week, in an unusual broadside, the respected and combative retired chairman of American Airlines - Robert Crandall - said no. He argues the public has got it all wrong. He says it's the FAA and its archaic, underfunded, and understaffed air-traffic control system. He's calling for the system to be privatized.

"Delays are, for the most part, attributable to failures of the air-traffic control system, and not either to bad weather or the inability of airlines to have their flights ready to depart as scheduled," he said at a conference sponsored by the Air Safety Alliance, an industry group.

But others disagree. While they acknowledge that the air-traffic control system has serious problems, they praise the progress the financially strapped and bureaucratic FAA has recently made in trying to modernize its 30-year-old system. They contend there are many reasons for the gridlock in the skies.

Top among them is the airlines themselves, which insist on scheduling as many flights as possible into already-crowded airports at peak travel times.

"The only major investment we can make in the infrastructure in this country, outside of modernization, that's going to have an immediate impact [on the delays] is putting more concrete on the ground, building new airports," says Randy Schwitz of the Air Traffic Controllers Association.

With record numbers of Americans flying - 560 million last year, almost three times the number in 1977 - the government, the airlines, and manufacturers are all trying to find ways to ease fliers' frustration. Congress is considering a "passengers' bill of rights" that would mandate better service - something the airlines are fighting.

Both the Boeing Co. and Airbus Industrie are considering a new generation of bigger jumbo jets. But those won't help much on short- hop routes, where flights are frequently scheduled to accommodate business travelers. This is particularly true in the Northeast corridor - the most congested air space in the nation.

The airlines have been increasing the number of flights. That's helped heighten competition and bring prices down, just as Congress had hoped when it deregulated the industry in 1977. But every scheduling decision an airline makes is geared to garnering the highest profit. And the best time to catch travelers is when they want to go - say, right after a 5 p.m. business meeting. …

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