Fears of flying

The Baltimore Sun

Congested airways, packed airplanes and an arcane air traffic system have combined with a fierce thunderstorm season to create extreme delays and frustrations for travelers this year.

Many passengers have spent extra hours or days in airports and hotels, finding it nearly impossible to rebook after missing a connection, thanks to peak customer demand. With fewer airline agents to help and tighter security, passengers are passing more of that time waiting in lines.

Airline delays in June were among the worst in the past dozen years, and government data show that the trend has been building along with the post-Sept. 11, 2001, rebound in travel. Through the first five months of 2007, average delays were longer, flights were canceled more often and diverted planes were up compared with a year ago.

To reverse those travails and avert a full aviation crisis, airlines, passengers and lawmakers are pushing fixes such as more quickly modernizing the air traffic control system and forcing carriers to provide better information, comforts and compensation.

Like other airports in the Northeast, Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport is captive to congested airspace. But the airport benefits from a less dense schedule than the nation's largest, and it is dominated by Southwest Airlines, which typically flies into less busy airports and does not rely on large hubs.

BWI ranked in the middle of the pack of major airports for May, the most recent month for which government data are available. About 79 percent of flights arrived and departed on time there.

But in general, passengers using major airports are finding less relief.

Take independent truck driver Dale Parkes, who needed to get from his Los Alamitos, Calif., home to Pennsylvania last month to pick up a rig.

He planned to fly from Los Angeles to Miami to Washington National Airport. From there Parkes would drive a rental car to Hagerstown, catch a ride over the state line for the truck and head to Georgia for another job.

But bad weather closed National earlier in the day, and a line of planes allowed to land backed up at the gates. Parkes was delayed by 90 minutes, arriving a half-hour too late to get his car.

After a $300 limo ride to Hagerstown, three nights in a hotel waiting for his luggage - which American Airlines lost - and missed work, he estimates his costs at $1,500.

"My thoughts on the state of airline travel?" Parkes said. "Are you sure you want to get me started?"

June was a vacation season low point, according to data compiled by FlightStats, a private clearinghouse of aviation information. Flights nationwide were on time 71 percent of the time, down from 75 percent in June 2006.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports that on-time arrivals - within 15 minutes of scheduled times - for the first five months of the year were at a multiyear low of 73.6 percent. Cancellations were at a multiyear high of 2.5 percent. Mishandled baggage reports for May were 5.9 per 1,000 passengers, up from 4.9 a year ago. And complaints about U.S. airlines were up in May to 675 from 449 last year.

Overall, airline analysts and others say the nation's air system is so old and crowded that it can't handle bumps in traffic or bad weather.

Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group Inc., an Evergreen, Colo.-based aviation consulting and forecasting firm, said better technology exists but the Federal Aviation Administration has failed to get it in place.

"The system can't handle demand," he said. "The FAA needs to step up and fix the system. They've been monkeying with it for 10 years, and things are getting worse by the day."

The FAA says the new system, called NextGen, is being developed and will be completed by 2025. It will dump 1950s-era radar for satellites that can more precisely track planes. Aircraft will be able to fly more closely together and directly in bad weather, which means more planes could fly in a day.

FAA wants to spend $4.6 billion during the next five years and up to $22 billion on NextGen. Marion C. Blakey, the FAA administrator, told lawmakers July 11 the need now is for a better method of taxing users - commercial airlines, private jet operators and passengers - to pay for the system.

As that debate continues, passengers want more from the financially recovering airlines that have made cutbacks in recent years on staff and amenities.

Julia Rath planned a $5,500 vacation to South Africa. Instead, the Chicago-area writer spent five days in April at Washington Dulles International Airport.

A mechanical problem with her plane meant she and 37 others on her tour missed a connection to Johannesburg. United Airlines said other flights were booked. The carrier paid for three nights in a hotel, although many of the tourists stayed for four.

Mostly, Rath stayed positive, reading and learning to play Sudoku as agents searched for seats. But she fretted about missing sites on the two-week tour. She also grew tired of airport food and wearing the same clothes because her luggage had gone ahead. On day five, she'd had enough. United sold her a ticket back to Chicago for $165.80.

"Something is wrong, and it needs to be fixed," Rath said.

She and other passengers want Congress to enact a passengers' bill of rights that limits the time planes can be grounded and requires airlines to offer food, air conditioning and better information and compensation for delays.

Passenger rights bills have been introduced, and some of the provisions have been included in legislation that authorizes funding for the FAA, giving the effort its best chance in years. But it's not clear what will pass - airlines oppose new rules and have fought them off before.

Rep. Jean Schmidt, an Ohio Republican, added better reporting requirements to the House FAA bill after her office determined delays of three hours or more were under-reported. In 2006, 1,295 such delays were logged, but she believes the number is low by 50 percent. She hopes better data will make a fix more clear.

But that won't help people stuck on planes now, said Lizbeth Binks, a Towson psychologist.

She flew from Baltimore to Portland, Maine, through Philadelphia in May. Time in the air was four hours, and time on the tarmac was six hours, with the main delay caused by a mechanical problem. The last leg ran into the time her husband, recovering from a recent heart attack, needed to take his six pills. But there was no water, and new security rules didn't allow her to bring any from home.

"They have you scheduled so tight that you don't have time to buy water during your layover," said Binks, who has met with lawmakers to argue for changes. "There are some pretty serious things they need to think about."

Some airlines have taken action since a spate of bad headlines.

After stranding thousands on planes for as long as 11 hours during a February snowstorm in the Northeast, JetBlue Airways enacted its own passenger bill of rights. And Delta Air Lines canceled 200 flights in June ahead of storms so passengers would have more time to rebook.

Delta's move came days after the airline became the star of a YouTube video capturing conditions inside a plane at Kennedy Airport in New York during a June 25 stranding on the tarmac.

The seven-minute video shows babies wailing. There's no food or room to move around. Seven hours pass, and it gets dark. The video, shot by a passenger, has been viewed almost 122,000 times.

The flight ended up taking more than 10 hours, though it was slated for three. Explanations from the airline for the delay: a mechanical problem, flight crews exceeding their allowed work hours and a line of planes to take off in front of it.

"People can really relate," said Kate Hanni, a California real estate agent turned passenger-rights activist after her own nine-hour stranding on an American Airlines plane in Texas in December. "We don't think this is happening a few dozen times a year; we think it's in the thousands."

The government reported 36 flights last year that were delayed five hours or longer. But there's currently no way to know how many people suffer such extreme delays, because the government doesn't count flights diverted to other airports, flights that were delayed and later canceled or people waiting in the airport.

David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the trade group for domestic carriers, agreed that extreme delays are "horrible." But he said even if the number really is five times higher, it would still be a fraction of the 7.2 million annual flights. Ordering planes back to the gate after three to five hours, as legislation suggests, could cause them to lose their place in line to take off and be further delayed. Or they could be canceled as flight crews exceed their work hours.

And if airlines have to scale back flights during peak hours, there will be less choice for travelers.

"This is thunderstorm season, and it's understandably frustrating, especially in the Northeast, which is the most congested," he said. "The air traffic control system is in the worst shape it's ever been in. It's on the verge of gridlock. We need to start modernizing."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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