REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
The month of June brings graduations, backyard barbecues and inevitable travel delays.
Ms. TINA STRICKLAND: We are on our way to Alaska on vacation. And our first flight was cancelled and we got rebooked on the second flight. And we're hoping that that works because if we don't, we probably going to have to go home and start over tomorrow.
Ms. BRENDA WILLIAMS: Last week, when I was traveling into New York, La Guardia, we ended up floating in the air above western Pennsylvania for about an hour and a half or so.
Mr. VINCENT BATISTA: Sitting on a tarmac on a plane for about three hours before even finding out we're going to go back to the gate after waiting three hours in a terminal just to get on that same plane.
Mr. JASON PRATT: About a year ago, I was in Chicago and I was on my way back from a work trip and the flight becomes delayed for an hour and then another hour and then another hour as they search for a crew and then a plane and then they finally cancel altogether ended up spending about nine hours in Chicago.
ROBERTS: That was Jason Pratt, Vincent Batista, Brenda Williams and Tina Strickland at Reagan National Airport today. They're experiences should come as no surprise judging by new statistics from the transportation department. It reports that the last four months have been horrible for air travelers just 72 percent of flights were on time.
David Field is U.S. editor of Airline Business magazine.
Mr. DAVID FIELD (U.S. Editor, Airline Business magazine): I was surprised that the number of on-time flights was that high.
ROBERTS: Oh, really.
Mr. FIELD: Yeah. Most people in the airline industry have been bracing themselves for a bad summer and I think travelers have to brace themselves for a bad summer. We're pretty much back where we were before 9/11 in terms of the number of flights and the number of passengers is way up from where it was.
We're back should have pre-depression levels, you know, the airlines had a depression starting in the spring of 2000 when all the dot coms went bust. And business now is gangbusters.
But what has changed is that there are no new airports, there's relatively little new air traffic control technology. And most of the planes that are being flown are smaller than in planes that were being flown before 9/11. And what that means is it's going to be more crowded.
ROBERTS: And why isn't there air traffic control technology?
Mr. FIELD: Part of its technology itself. It is very hard to change technology overnight and part of it is there's an institutional reluctance on the part of a lot of the technology manufacturers as well as some other forces within the government.
The air traffic controllers themselves to move to what DFA wants which is a new satellite-based technology that's not going to involve reliance on what they call aircraft-centric technology.
Instead of having lots of lots of radars and lots and lots of instruments systems, you rely on a satellite to communicate directly with the airline cockpit and tell the guys - the pilots where they are. And that also communicates shortly for clear traffic control. And it takes enormous layers of complexity out on the system.
But even if we had an agreement on this five years ago, we'd still have to have the technology fully developed, installed and above all, paid for. And right now, the big logjam in Washington is how will we pay for the next generation of air traffic control? Will we raise fees on passengers? Will we raise fees on private jets? What come out of the general tax fund? And this debate's going to take a long time.
ROBERTS: How much blame for the low on time percentage rest with the airlines themselves?
Mr. FIELD: A fair amount because airlines over schedule and schedule dishonestly. By over schedule, I mean an airport that they knew can take 60 arrivals in one hour. They will schedule 75 arrivals. In DFA, it can't tell airlines not to schedule the flight to land in Chicago at 6 PM so the FA just has to make them wait in line.
And the you've also got the slightly dishonest scheduling of padding the times terribly to make up for being late. And all of that does is instill the mentality if it's all right that you're late. So you get planes that are delayed beyond an unrealistic arrival time.
ROBERTS: Isn't it bad for business to keep having late planes? Why don't the airlines fix up?
Mr. FIELD: You would think it's bad but look at the reality; every time the airlines have raised fares in the last year and it's about a dozen times, people still keep coming and lining up and they're reading to give the airlines money and they want to fly.
Demand is out there. The airlines are simply not going to change the basic way of doing business as long as people are willing to give the money.
ROBERTS: David Field, thanks so much.
Mr. FIELD: Hey, it's my pleasure.
ROBERTS: David Field is U.S. editor of Airline Business magazine. He joined us from his hotel room in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he is attending the International Air Transport Association Conference.
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