Flyer Beware

Airlines Often Know Flights Will Be Delayed

April 12 - If you have been on a commercial flight recently, you probably have firsthand knowledge of how frustrating air travel can be these days.
Lately, it is not unusual for airline customers to experience delays during their travels, often sitting in planes held on the ground for extended periods of time before takeoff. But a 20/20 report has discovered that in many cases airlines may know flights will be delayed - often the same flight, day after day.

Critics point to the overscheduling of flights as one of the main reasons for delays. 20/20 has obtained statistics from the Federal Aviation Administration that show almost all major hub airports are overscheduled at various times of the day. For example, at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, just before noon, twice as many planes are scheduled for takeoff than the airport can accommodate. For air-traffic controllers, flight overscheduling can be a major headache.

"There are more airplanes scheduled than we can possibly handle without delaying airplanes," says Craig Burzych, an air-traffic controller at O'Hare. "[The flights] will be delayed."

Airlines Withhold Information
Industry experts say that airlines are wary of the way their on-time records are reflected on Department of Transportation data. Often, flights that do not have good on-time records are assigned a different flight number, which makes them difficult to track in the DOT's records.

Another way critics say airlines manipulate the system is by not telling passengers about expected flight delays in order to get them inside the plane and push off the gate. To be credited with an on-time departure, all that an aircraft needs to do is to get away from the gate on time - even if only by a foot - because the government calculates on-time departures based on when the flight leaves the gate, not when it takes off.

In many circumstances, what pilots say over the PA system to passengers does not reveal the information the pilot knows before pulling from the gate. Experts say it's highly unlikely for pilots not to know weather conditions for their flight - they say that 95 percent of the time, pilots are informed of weather delays before leaving the gate. Critics say that although weather is a legitimate cause of delays in many cases, it is often blamed, along with air-traffic control, for delays when neither is the cause.

Is There Any Relief in Sight?
Last summer, the number of flight delays in the nation reached record high levels. In July of 1999 alone, delays soared 76 percent over the numbers from July 1998.

Airlines complained that the Federal Aviation Administration's control centers and facilities that guide approaches to airports exercised too much autonomy and disrupted normal traffic patterns, leading to chaotic conditions. Controllers blamed the increase in air travel and airline schedules that centered on certain times of the day as major factors for the delays.

Hoping to avoid a repeat of last summer, President Clinton and the Federal Aviation Administration announced just last month new steps to centralize air-traffic control planning and involve more consultation with airlines. The changes are aimed at preventing disruption of flight schedules that begin to take effect in spring as warm weather increases the risk of thunderstorms.

The new measures include:

Although experts and industry observers hailed the new measures, many emphasize the plan cannot serve as a substitute for the $13 billion project to modernize the air-traffic control system. Furthermore, they add that the long-term solution to the crush of planes on the runways is a modernized system that will be able to handle the nation's expanding fleet of planes.