Neither the airlines nor the Federal Aviation Administration can control the weather, but they're both trying to make life easier for the flying public by reducing air traffic delays during severe storms.
After last summer's epidemic of flight delays -- 197,532 from April through August -- the Clinton administration urged changes to alleviate air traffic problems, especially those caused by weather.
Last year, air traffic delays increased 22 percent over the previous year to a total of 374,116, 68.8 percent attributable to weather.
Whether the new plan really cuts air gridlock, only this spring and summer and La Nina will tell.
But at least there are some positive signs for passengers in this "people first" agenda hammered out by the FAA, Air Transport Association, Air Line Pilots Association, Defense Department and others. "The initiative will have the FAA, the airlines and the aviation weather folks all looking at the same information and planning accordingly instead of having different opinions," said Fraser Jones, an FAA spokesman. "But I don't think anybody would tell the traveler that weather is not going to be a factor on flights. Mother Nature is too keen an adversary."
The plan also calls for a new Web site -- www.fly.faa.gov -- which is scheduled to go on line tomorrow. The Web site, to be updated every two hours from morning to night, "will provide an overall status of the national air space system and include a summary of the weather," Jones explained. "Consumers can click on specific airports to determine whether there are weather-related conditions that might impact their flights. Passengers will still need to call their carrier for specifics on weather delays. That's never going to go away."
Among the measures being phased in, according to the FAA:
* Use of the same high-tech weather forecasts by the FAA and airlines with more frequent forecasts to determine how to deal with traffic during storms.
* Use of lower-level airspace to enable the air traffic control system to absorb more volume at peak times.
* Use of military airspace off the East Coast during severe weather, allowing for alternative north-south routings.
* Use of near real-time tower-control center communications in the New York area to maximize the number of departures in the busy New York-Chicago corridor. Pilots will know far faster when they can depart and can relay that information to passengers. More control will be given to the FAA's System Command Center in Herndon, Va., to direct 20 other air traffic control centers.
The FAA said that earlier decisions about weather patterns would allow airlines to shift airplanes and passengers to alternative flights and routings.
With earlier and better access to information, passengers will be able to adjust their travel plans before leaving for the airport.
"We're hopeful the new plan is going to help," said David Fuscus, spokesman for the ATA, which represents major carriers. "One part of the delay problem is weather, but this plan is not a solution to the overall delay problem. The only way to solve that problem is a new modern air traffic control system. But we think this will make things better."
Fuscus suggested that travelers continue to check things like on-time departures and to keep in touch with their airlines if there's a problem with the weather.
"The best travelers are the ones who use all the sources of information -- newspaper weather pages and the airlines. The Web site is going to give travelers another tool to find out what's going on and what's affecting the air transport system."
Better technology urged
Tom Parsons, editor of Bestfares.com, an aviation guru and a frequent flier, echoed Fuscus, saying: "What the FAA needs to do is improve air traffic control technology instead of trying to give us all these false hopes. They need to give us better equipment."
(Congress just enacted and President Clinton is expected to sign a $40 billion aviation bill that includes, among other things, funds to improve the air traffic control system, one that can cope with a projected 1 billion passengers a year by 2010 instead of the 650 million last year.)
The bottom line, said Parsons, is it's still going to be up to the airlines to tell us about flight delays.
Parsons offered some suggestions to passengers who might be confronted with flight and weather delays this spring and summer:
* Be aware of Rule 240, which governs the airline's responsibilities and passengers' rights in the event of flight delays, cancellations and missed connections that might result from weather. The airline must confirm you on its next flight on which space is available at no additional cost. If the alternate flight is not acceptable to you, you have the right to be confirmed on a flight of a different airline at no additional cost. In severe circumstances, the airline's only obligation is to refund the price of your ticket.
* Request a hard ticket rather than an electronic or e-ticket. If you have a paper ticket, it's a lot quicker for an airline to shift you to another carrier, Parsons said.
* Get to the airport earlier rather than later. If weather is closing in, an airline might accommodate you on an earlier flight if it has space.
* When booking flights, choose morning flights, because they usually take off on time since the planes for those departures arrived the evening before.
* It's always a good idea to know what other carriers are flying to your destination, their schedules and their 800 numbers.
No matter what the FAA's strategy, passengers must always check with their airlines for schedule changes. Ask the carrier where your flight is originating. When the weather is bad, keep your eye on the new FAA Web site or the Weather Channel. And hope for the best.