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"How To Fix Flight Delays"

Thu Feb 08, 2001 10:30 am

There's an interesting article on CNN.com from a Time magazine contributor offering suggestions for fixing our on-time dilemma. It's a bit lengthy and not for reproducing here, but it can be found at

I wrote the following response to the author, any comments are appreciated as I think this should be a central debate that a lot of people in this forum could add to...

Dear Ms. Donnelly,

Being involved in the day-to-day operation of an airline that does most of its flying in some of the busiest airspace in the US, I read your criticisms with much interest. Unfortunately, most of your suggestions are either misdirected or lack the power you put in them to change the current situation. I offer to you my criticism as well as some new directions to look to try to solve our delay problems.

Your first suggestion is simply to build more runways. Unfortunately, a net increase in concrete will do very little to ease the problems we're having. Another runway at O'Hare is not going to prevent inbound or outbound flights from being affected by thunderstorms, snow, or ice. Dallas-Fort Worth and Denver have more runway capacity than they need, but they face delays like every other airport when the weather takes a turn for the worse. The only airport in the country where I can see a new runway helping in poor weather is San Francisco. The current runways are too close together for simultaneous (side-by-side) approaches in poor visibility conditions. But building a new runway would mean constructing an island for it in the Bay.

More runways would ease the lack of capacity at airports notorious for overcrowding. But where are we going to build them at New York's LaGuardia or Washington National? The reason there are so many flights into LaGuardia is because that's where people want to go - it's convenient to New York City. Meanwhile, JFK lies a few miles further out of town and has a fraction of the delays that affect LaGuardia. The problem isn't too few runways, it's simply that our busiest airports also happen to be some of our smallest because of their location.

You mention your desire to see an iron-fisted leader in charge of things. Our system of air travel is too complex for one person to "take charge" of. Extremely centralized leadership can only affect safety negatively as standards are pushed aside in the name of progress.

Your argument that our airliners lack modern technology is seriously flawed. The vast majority of the commercial fleet is fitted with global position systems. These systems make it possible for an airplane to take off from Miami and fly to Honolulu without the assistance of ground-based navigational aids. But if every aircraft flew the most direct route like that, conflicts are certain to occur, particularly when everyone is trying to go around the same cluster of thunderstorms or maneuver over an area of reported turbulence. Our "highways in the sky" bring order to the system, and in most cases add very little delay to your flight.

Finally, the most short-sighted 'solution' you provide is the abolishment of the FAA. It's no coincidence that the most crowded, complex, and expansive air travel system in the world is also the safest. The system and its oversight may not be perfect, but you cannot deny the effectiveness of an organziation that makes it statistically more dangerous to take a bath than move through the sky at five hundred miles per hour.

Allow me to offer my own suggestions for reducing air travel delays..

1) Make major airports more accessible by high-speed public ground transportation. I imagine we would see the demand at LaGuardia decrease significantly if travellers could get to JFK quickly and inexpensively. The same goes for National and Dulles airports in Washington. New major airports could be built in remote areas, where noise and traffic is far less of a concern, and connected to city centers by high-speed rail. This strategy could be particularly useful for the San Francisco Bay area and the Los Angeles Basin.

2) Airlines should be encouraged to use their hub-and-spoke system more dynamically when poor weather strikes. Today's weather forecasts are rather accurate from 24 hours in advance and they are only getting better. This information could be used to direct passengers away from airports that airlines will have problems. An example illustrates this idea best. Let's say I'm travelling on American Airlines from Raleigh-Durham, NC to Las Vegas, NV via Chicago O'Hare. A snowstorm is expected to snarl traffic in Chicago all day. Up to 4-6 hours before my departure, American should be looking to rebook me through Dallas, where no problems are expected. I may get to Las Vegas a little later than I would like, but most likely hours before I would have if I had gone through Chicago. Obviously this doesn't work for every passenger. But by lightening the loads into impacted airports, airlines can cancel more flights, thus temporarily reducing the demand and making operations run much smoother for those that cannot avoid Chicago.

3) The flying public needs to be educated. The core reason we face such lengthy delays is because of public demand for more flights to more places more often - the airlines are only trying their best to meet that demand. If people could see how complex a safe airline operation is, especially in bad weather, I truly believe there would be fewer complaints about on-time performance. Every mode of transportation is subject to problems and the complexity of aviation makes it even more susceptible. The airline industry is commited to safety first and convenience second.. any other philosophy is a hazard to everyone.

The bottom line is that people need to understand why patience is essential. When you see your flight is cancelled or significantly delayed, try to remember that the airline likes to see that cancellation or delay even less and is doing everything it can to remedy the situation. There are thousands of men and women that strive to make your travel experience the best and safest it can be. Placing blame on those people - whether they be airline or FAA employees is, in most instances, misdirected and short-sighted when the real catalyst for delay is simply the demand for more.
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