Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

This Summer, Less Airport Angst ; after Two Years of Record Flight Delays, the Nation's Airlines Are Posting Better On-Time Performances

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

This Summer, Less Airport Angst ; after Two Years of Record Flight Delays, the Nation's Airlines Are Posting Better On-Time Performances

Article excerpt

Good news for the nation's air travelers: Flight delays are dropping - finally.

After two years of record delays and flying frustration, America's airlines are posting better on-time performances.

The result: less time spent in hard chairs at airports and more prompt arrivals at business meetings and family reunions.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the number of delays dropped by 17 percent in June compared with last year. In May, there was only a slight improvement in on-time performance, but the delays were significantly shorter: The average late flight ran 56 minutes behind schedule last May. This year, it was only 37 minutes late, an improvement of more than 30 percent.

FAA officials, with an eye on the sky, say they're "cautiously optimistic" about the rest of the summer. "We can't say definitively why it's better, and things could get worse tomorrow or next week or in August," says William Shumann, an FAA spokesman. "But we are encouraged."

One major factor is the weather, which accounts for 70 percent of delays. In 1999 and 2000, El Nino and La Nina produced unusually large numbers of thunderstorms across the country's midsection at the peak of the summer travel season. So far this year, the skies have been relatively calm.

Another factor is the aggressive effort by the FAA, the airlines, and the nation's air-traffic-control centers to better coordinate traffic in congested airways.

After last year's record delays, more than 3,000 people, from airline managers to air-traffic controllers, were trained in better ways to manage flight schedules and routes when thunderstorms clutter up the already overburdened air-traffic system. The FAA also reached new agreements with Canada and the US military, which allow US commercial jets to use their airspace to detour around gridlocked routes.

While aviation experts applaud the overall improvement, they contend that it only nips at the edges of the larger, fundamental problem with the nation's aviation system: the lack of new airports and runways to cope with the record number of passengers still taking to the skies.

"They've done all of the things that they can do in the short term, and passengers are benefiting," says Prof. Dean Headley, co- author of the annual Airline Quality Rating. "But three to five years from now, if we don't have more runways, we're going to have the same problem all over again."

At the gates

At Boston's Logan airport Monday night, all the flights listed on the monitors were "on time," with only one canceled flight. That one was to Detroit, and engineer Rick Levin was supposed to be on it. Still, as he sat in the departure lounge waiting for the next flight two hours later, he says he has seen an overall improvement this year over last. …

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