Skies Still Partly Cloudy For Airline Passengers

This past week brought mixed news for airline passengers. A new FAA report showed service has been improving amid the travel slump. Fewer planes mean fewer delays and lost luggage. But airlines are also making holiday travelers pay new surcharges. Passengers at the Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport share their thoughts.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Another tough year for the airlines: revenues are down more than 20 percent, fares have dropped 15 percent, major carriers have eliminated about one of every eight flights, and there are fewer travelers. Since the number of passengers have declined, that's brought a bit of good news. The U.S. government this week said delays are less common now than at any time in the past six years.

NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.

ADAM HOCHBERG: The figures from the Department of Transportation suggest airlines have gotten a little better at getting you where you're going on time. So far this year, about 79 percent of flights arrive promptly, up from 74 percent last year. Fewer flights were cancelled entirely. And the airlines made progress in limiting those excruciating situations where planes filled with passengers are forced to sit on the tarmac for hours on end. The situation has improved enough that some frequent flyers have begun to notice it.

(Soundbite of P.A. system)

Unidentified Man: …final board call for (unintelligible) Gate 71…

HOCHBERG: As he changed planes at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport this week, businessman Michael Kinnaman(ph) marveled at how trouble-free his recent flights have been.

Mr. MICHAEL KINNAMAN (Businessman): Traveling just seems to be a little bit more relaxed this summer. Last winter, any time I was going through certain cities, I could pretty much count on missing flights and, you know, staying overnight and things like that. This summer has not been too bad though.

HOCHBERG: The positive news comes at an opportune time for the airline industry, as it tries to fend off congressional efforts to pass a so-called Passengers Bill of Rights for people whose flights are delayed on the tarmac.

David Castelveter of the Air Transport Association, the airline's trade group, was quick to site the government report as evidence the industry is addressing delays itself, without congressional intervention.

Mr. DAVID CASTELVETER (Air Transport Association): Are we happy that we're making progress? Absolutely. We're constantly focused on getting airplanes to their destinations on time.

HOCHBERG: We caught up with Castelveter on his cell phone at the Atlanta Airport as he got ready to board a plan to San Diego - a flight he happily noted was departing exactly on schedule. Castelveter says new technology and new procedures are helping airlines reduce delays, though he concedes a big factor is simply that fewer people are flying. Indeed, a separate report this week by the Brookings Institution predicted the positive trend may be temporary.

Robert Puentes is the report's co-author.

Mr. ROBERT PUENTES (Senior fellow, Brookings Institution): Because we think that folks are traveling less all across the board, we're seeing this improvement in performance. But we shouldn't get use to it. And when the economy ticks back up again, we do expect to see some of this congestion return.

HOCHBERG: Both the industry trade group and the Brookings researchers agree delays could be lessened by improvements to the nation's air traffic control system, which Brookings calls antiquated. Puentes also says development of high-speed train lines could ease some of the strain on airports, especially for short-haul flights.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News.

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