The Friendly Skies Become Overcrowded

Crowded skies, known to pilots as mutual traffic, are a large part of air travel's woes. Mike Sammartino, director of system operations for the Federal Aviation Administration, attributes overcrowding to airlines' overloaded schedules. He speaks with Renee Montagne

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next, we're going to listen to air travel as you may never have heard it before.

Unidentified Woman (Flight Attendant): Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome aboard United Airlines Flight 915 with service to San Francisco.

INSKEEP: That's the part you likely have heard, a United Airlines flight attendant at the beginning of Flight 915 this June. The aircraft was set for departure at Washington's Dulles International Airport.

United let NPR listen in to everything the pilots were hearing and saying.

Unidentified Man #1 (Pilot): We have a maintenance difficulty underway and it involves the in-flight video entertainment system, the entire in-flight video entertainment system is inoperative. They've sent for a part to repair that. They told me five minutes ago best-case scenario is 45 minutes to get that repair made.

INSKEEP: United Flight 915 did eventually get that problem fixed. It left the gate about 35 minutes late. Delays of every sort are a large part of air travel today and so are crowded skies, known on the pilot's radio as mutual traffic.

Unidentified Man #2 (Air Traffic Controller): United 915, mutual traffic, 12:00 o'clock, 10 miles east (unintelligible) Airbus, west bound (unintelligible)...

Unidentified Man #1: 915 United's looking.

INSKEEP: In time, flight controllers directed the plane to San Francisco's 28-right runway as another plane landed out its windows on 28-left. The flight arrived about 30 minutes late.

Unidentified Woman: If this is home for you, welcome home. If you're here for a visit, we hope it's wonderful. And if you are continuing on, we do wish you the safest of travel.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Safe air travel today is largely in the hands of air traffic control. The Federal Aviation Administration's main command center coordinates that effort across all airlines, across all airports, and most everything else using U.S. airspace.

Mr. MIKE SAMMARTINO (Federal Aviation Administration): So those are the airplanes that we're tracking. On a normalized day, it's about 7,000 flights in the air at any given time.

MONTAGNE: Gosh, it makes you a little - gives you pause. You know, when you're up on a plane, you seem to think you're the only one.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: Well, that's true. When you look at the U.S., it looks very crowded.

MONTAGNE: Mike Sammartino directs system operations for the FAA. He is taking us on a tour of the command center just outside Washington D.C.

(Soundbite of beeping)

MONTAGNE: Thanks.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: This is the command center itself.

MONTAGNE: We walked into a room. It's as big as a football field, and all around are giant computer screens, about a dozen of them. This room looks like what you would imagine NASA Mission Control would look like. There are several dozen U-shaped stations where specialists sit at computers, pretty quiet, managing the country's airspace.

How does it work? I mean, who do you - the FAA - speak to? And what are you looking at to make decisions? Are you looking at that, that big...

Mr. SAMMARTINO: Well, we are looking at the big screens, big each of the controllers here, for any of our airports in the system, they have a tool set that will define how many arrivals and departures will land or go through that piece of airspace in every given hour. And we can go down here and look at that in a minute.

All right, let's go. If you're ready.

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: So they're using the example here of Detroit. And this tells us that Detroit Airport, our normal arrival rate is 60 airplanes an hour.

MONTAGNE: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: And we look at the demand two hours from now. There's 53 total airplanes that are going to land at Detroit. So we know we can handle 60. When they have 53 coming, we don't have to take any major initiatives to restrict the flow of traffic into Detroit.

Now, I'm going to change this so you can see an airport.

MONTAGNE: So now you're hitting La Guardia.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: Correct.

MONTAGNE: They're may be a little more of a delay because...

Mr. SAMMARTINO: Right.

MONTAGNE: ...everything is near the maximum or above.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: That is true. We will watch that closer than we will Detroit. And we will collaborate with our field facilities, as well as our customers, to see if we have to take any major initiative.

So what is a major initiative mean? It means we can stop airplanes that are not airborne on the ground. So all these green flights, they're not airborne yet.

MONTAGNE: They're sitting in an airport hoping or aiming to go into La Guardia.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: Right.

MONTAGNE: And you're going to have to hold them on the ground.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: We will have to take an initiative to tactically stop airplanes on the ground. That's our first rule. So we will look and look at the over-demand. And we'll go out and tell those facilities to keep that specific airplane on the ground.

MONTAGNE: And as anyone who has ever flown now knows, that could effect the airplane that you want to meet on the other end.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: Correct. Absolutely correct.

MONTAGNE: And it - could it create a backlog?

Mr. SAMMARTINO: In essence, you actually end up delaying quite a few operations throughout your day.

MONTAGNE: How different is this level of flying that we're looking at - how different is this now than it was 10 years ago?

Mr. SAMMARTINO: Well, there's more demand on the system today than there was 10 years ago. Because of the load factors - and we're not - we don't run the business models of the airlines - the load factors are at historic record numbers. So they're flying - you know, in the past they used to be, if they were - say the airlines were in the 70 percent load factors, that was good. Now they're flying in 90s, and it's not uncommon for an airline to call us and say, we're flying on 100 percent load factor.

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: Hundred percent.

MONTAGNE: In a sense then are you then blaming the airlines? Is their way of doing business contributing to these incredible delays that in the end, you know, people have to live with?

Mr. SAMMARTINO: So the issue for us, it's not blame, it's providing a service. That's what we are. We're a service provider. So from my perspective, it's very positive because there's quite a bit of air travel.

MONTAGNE: That the planes are full.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: That's very good.

MONTAGNE: And more of them flying.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: More of them flying. The downside is when you have a hiccup in the system the delayed flights come. On a normal day, without weather in the system, we will run 58,000-59,000 flights. We will run that with minimal delay. And minimal delay to me is somewhere - 700 delays.

MONTAGNE: Who decides when a flight is cancelled?

Mr. SAMMARTINO: We, the FAA, do not cancel flights. It's up to the - whoever is flying that flight to cancel that flight.

MONTAGNE: So don't blame the FAA when a flight is cancelled.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: Yeah, we just do not control that. That's up to the airline that works through that.

MONTAGNE: So looking towards the future, is delay and cancellation part of the equation of flying? That is, you don't go to the airport without expecting something like this.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: I don't believe there will ever be a day when delays will not be present.

MONTAGNE: Mike Sammartino, thank you for talking to me.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: Well, we appreciate you visiting now the air traffic control system (unintelligible) thanks.

MONTAGNE: Mike Sammartino directs system operations for the FAA.

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Holding Pattern: Flight Delays are Going Up, Up, Up

Airplane

If you think airline delays are getting worse, you're right. June was one of the worst months on record, with one in three flights delayed. Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images

In Depth

During this busy summer travel season, flights are increasingly delayed due to a variety of reasons. In a series of stories from Philadelphia International Airport, Morning Edition looks at air travel today and how it has changed over the years.

It's still early, but 2007 is shaping up to be The Year of the Flight Delay and, by extension, the Year of the Angry Passenger.

Eileen Gwinn, a nurse practitioner from Seattle, certainly falls into that category. In late June, she and her family were traveling from Seattle to Washington, D.C., for a college reunion. It's a journey that should take eight hours. Instead, it took 36.

First, there was the canceled American Airlines flight in Chicago, where they were transiting. Then there was the unplanned overnight stay, followed by the boarding pass mix-up, which led to the missed United Airlines flight the next morning.

"That's when I started yelling, and I don't normally yell at airports," she says. The Gwinns eventually booked a flight through Bloomington, Ill., arriving at Washington's Dulles Airport at 9 p.m. — too late for the reunion dinner. Their luggage ended up in Baltimore.

Gwinn places the blame for her travel nightmare squarely on the shoulders of American Airlines, which she says misleadingly blamed the canceled flight on bad weather. She has requested compensation for her hotel expenses but, so far, hasn't heard back from the carrier. Meanwhile, she has resolved to avoid Chicago's O'Hare airport in the future and "only fly nonstop, even if we have to pay more."

A Spike in Chronic Lateness

Gwinn's experience is far from an isolated one. June was one of the worst months for flight delays since the Department of Transportation began compiling such data in 1987. One-third of all flights that month were delayed, according to FlightStats, a private firm that also tracks airline on-time performance. The average delay was 62 minutes. The number of canceled flights doubled this June, and data from the first two weeks of July suggests that the delays and cancellations persist.

Particularly worrisome is the spike in the number of chronically late flights — those that are late 70 percent or 80 percent (or even 100) percent of the time. Every airline has at least a few of these flights on their schedules. Passenger-rights groups are pushing for regulations that would require the airlines to "label" these flights as chronically late so consumers can avoid them — or at least know what they are getting into when they book a ticket.

"When you contract to do X but consistently do Y, this is usually considered consumer fraud," says Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project.

As troubling as the latest figures on flight delays may be, they don't tell the whole story. The delay statistics don't include diverted flights, or flights that are held on the tarmac for hours, then return to the gate. Last year, more than 16,000 flights were diverted to other airports, and one in 20 flights was canceled.

"Department of Transportation delay statistics are inaccurate to the point of being deceptive," Hudson says. "It's like a doctor telling a patient all about his hangnails, but omitting to mention he also has cancer."

One airline in particular, Northwest, has canceled a large number of flights this summer —300 so far this week alone. Northwest blames "pilot absenteeism" for the cancellations. The pilots blame the airline for flying more tightly packed schedules than before. Either way, the passenger suffers.

System at Close to Capacity

Why the record number of delays this summer? There is plenty of blame to go around.

First of all, after a dip following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the number of air travelers is growing again. Aviation experts say this summer may be the busiest travel season ever. So far, passenger miles are up 3 percent compared with last year. That may not sound like much of an increase, but the air-traffic control system is already operating at close to capacity. It doesn't take much to overload the system. A few thunderstorms or a spike in air traffic will do it.

Airlines are flying with their planes about 90 percent full, so if one flight is canceled, they can't easily accommodate stranded passengers on other flights. An unusually large number of thunderstorms this summer has compounded the problem. Planes are forced to divert around the storms, and that often leads to a domino of delays.

"You have an air-traffic control system that is essentially based on World War II-era technology. So when you have thunderstorms, it's like putting glue in the system," says Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, the airline industry's trade group.

The airlines have been pushing the federal government to modernize the air-traffic control system. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration has begun to do just that. The agency is developing a new system that relies on a series of satellites instead of ground-based radar. It will enable planes to safely fly closer together, and therefore reduce delays. But the $40 billion project is costly and years, if not decades, away from completion. Congress has yet to commit to full funding.

A Very Bumpy Ride Ahead

Meanwhile, the congestion and delays are forecast to get much worse in coming years. The FAA predicts that delays will increase 62 percent by the year 2014, given projected passenger growth and the antiquated air-traffic control system.

Aviation experts say the airlines shoulder some of the blame for the delays. They schedule many flights at peak hours — at 8 a.m., for instance — leading to gridlock in the morning and evening hours. The airlines say they are merely responding to consumer demand.

Meara McLaughlin, vice president with FlightStats, agrees that consumers are also to blame for the delays.

"Air travelers have come to believe that they have a God-given right to book a flight to Boca for $1.50." With so many people crowding the skies, delays are inevitable, she says. "The idea that the aviation system is endlessly expandable has proved to be a falsehood, and it's an inconvenient falsehood."

One of passenger Eileen Gwinn's biggest complaints about her 36-hour ordeal is that the airline crew and gate agents provided incomplete information, if they provided any at all. It's a common complaint, one that, consumer groups say, boils down to money. If an airline can claim that a delay was caused by bad weather or air-traffic congestion, then it is not required to provide free lodging or other compensation to passengers.

"If they were honest with passengers, it would cost them money," Hudson says.

"The airlines are not honoring their contract with passengers," agrees Kate Hanni, founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights. "They know why the plane is delayed, but they won't tell you anything because they want to keep you from migrating to another airline," she says.

Another reason for the delays: Airlines keep too few planes and crew in reserve. If there is a mechanical problem with a plane, or a pilot is sick, then chances are the flight will be canceled.

Congress is mulling over several bills that would mandate certain rights for airline passengers, possibly including:

  • The right to disembark an airplane if it has been sitting on the tarmac for more than three hours.
  • The right to food, water and clean bathrooms if stranded on the tarmac.
  • The right to receive timely and accurate information about delayed, diverted and canceled flights.

The airlines oppose a mandated passengers' bill of rights, arguing that such measures could be counterproductive and lead to more, not fewer, delays.

Consumer groups don't buy those arguments. They point to Europe, which recently enacted a passenger bill of rights. The new regulations ensure that passengers on delayed flights are compensated. For example, if a flight is delayed for more than two hours, the airline is required to provide passengers with meals and refreshments, as well as two free telephone calls, e-mails or faxes. If a flight is canceled or overbooked, the airline must pay each passenger up to 600 Euros, or about $820.

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