December 29, 2000 Daily Herald
Rough year for airlines
By Robert McCoppin Daily Herald Staff Writer
Posted on December 29, 2000

If the past year in air travel were a movie, it might be called, "Passengers on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."

The flying public - particularly at O'Hare International Airport - grumbled through a long summer of labor disputes and thunderstorms and then an early winter of labor disputes and snowstorms.

In response, aviation watchdogs say, next year might be better titled, "Do the Right Thing," as a passenger backlash pushes for improvements at O'Hare and across the board.

In fact, the very threat commercial airlines once dodged conceivably could come back to haunt them: the Passenger Bill of Rights.

Record complaints about the aviation industry prompted a proposed bill of rights in 1998. It called for such measures as increasing compensation for passengers delayed or bumped from flights, informing passengers of delays and their causes, and breaking the stranglehold some airlines have on certain airports.

It also guaranteed passengers on planes access to food, medicine and working restrooms.

Airline executives persuaded Congress not to impose regulations on them, arguing that they would voluntarily respond.

Since then, complaints have only increased, and performance has worsened.

The latest Federal Aviation Administration report shows airline delays compared to the previous year increased 55 percent in October and 47 percent in November. And as the number of flights increases, experts say, there's little relief in sight.

"We're at a breaking point," said Wichita State University associate professor Dean Headley, co-author of the Airline Quality Rating, which rates airline performance on standardized criteria. "The system is already cracking because of demand. You add a little more and it really fractures."

Worse during holidays

Headley has found that customer complaints about on-time performance and baggage handling have increased and typically get worse during the holiday season.

The problems with the aviation system identified by those who study it are basic:

1. Too many flights.

2. Not enough runways.

3. Outdated air traffic control.

This past year, labor problems aggravated the situation.

Pilots refused to continue performing a controversial but long-standing landing procedure in which they stop short, allowing another plane to take off on a crossing runway. Some pilots claim it is safer to not stop their planes short, but to roll farther on landing. The loss of that procedure slowed down the rate of operations at O'Hare and some other airports.

At the same time, air traffic controllers in Aurora were penalized on charges they intentionally slowed traffic as a protest against increased supervision.

More importantly, United Airlines canceled thousands of flights after its pilots refused to work overtime during contract negotiations. A new contract gave pilots raises of up to 28 percent.

Seeing that, other aviation-related unions have increased their demands and have been accused of employing the same tactic. United accused its mechanics of slowing down flights, and Delta made the same complaint about its pilots.

More labor problems will plague the industry, travel adviser Terry Trippler predicts, as each group of employees tries to get a bigger share of record profits from recent years. As a result, passengers may pay higher air fares.

With flights increasing 3 percent to 5 percent per year, none of the basic problems is expected to be solved soon.

Airlines show little inclination to reduce flights, only a handful of runways are under construction, and major advances in air traffic control are years off.

But incremental improvements might be achieved in the new year.

Among President Clinton's last initiatives before leaving office, he has proposed charging higher landing fees for flights at peak times, when flight backups are worst.

Though the president has shot down the idea of privatizing air traffic control, the FAA is proceeding with experiments to improve traffic flow.

Improving the flow

At O'Hare, the FAA hopes to implement a new landing procedure by which planes initially could approach above each other, rather than single file. Like a longer merge lane, FAA spokeswoman Liz Cory said, the procedure is meant to improve traffic flow and reduce delays.

At the same time, the FAA wants to establish new high-altitude routes to O'Hare and Midway airports and Milwaukee's Mitchell Airport to reduce the distance planes have to fly.

In the years ahead, the FAA hopes to convert to "free flight," allowing planes to follow their own flight paths for much of their trips, rather than following prescribed and often backed-up highways in the sky.

A recent change has been American Airlines' move this fall to separate O'Hare planes from the rest of its fleet so bad weather in Chicago doesn't bog down the whole system.

The move was meant to help people in other cities, but Chicagoans could get some relief when there's bad weather elsewhere, such as down South, because travelers here won't have to wait for delayed connections elsewhere.

"It makes us more reliable," American spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said.

Meanwhile, the city of Chicago plans to proceed with its multibillion-dollar World Gateway expansion program to build a new terminal and gates.

City and federal officials maintain the improvements are not meant to increase capacity, only to improve efficiency, though anti-expansion groups say it's a prelude to more runways.

Groups such as US-Citizens Aviation Watch and its local affiliate, Alliance of Residents Concerning O'Hare, oppose any expansion of existing airports or new flight procedures because they fear decreased safety and increased noise and pollution.

They may get one wish this year, though. The election of President George W. Bush has boosted the hopes of those who want to build a third major airport in the Chicago area to relieve traffic at O'Hare.

The Clinton-Gore administration stalled plans for a new airport proposed for far South suburban Peotone. That protected the aviation monopoly of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, a key Democratic supporter.

Now Bush is seen as more likely to move forward at the request of fellow Republicans in the suburbs, including Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde.

But since any new airport would be years off, for now, passengers are stuck with what they've got.

Service advances

Industry officials predict there will be smoother flying once airlines like United settle new contracts with their workers.

Following recent technology providing customer service advances this year, like a paging system to notify fliers of delayed flights, United spokesman Chris Brathwaite suggested there's room for optimism.

"We're always looking for ways to improve the traveling experience of our passengers," he said.

In part, the aviation industry is a victim of its own success. Since deregulation in 1978, air fares for vacationers have gone down, boosting the number of passengers.

Air travel in this country remains one of the fastest, safest ways to travel.

That said, passengers say they are fed up with having their plans canceled and delayed and being kept in the dark as to why.

Realizing that bad weather can cause delays, passengers often want to be treated with more respect, air travel researcher Headley emphasized.

"Passengers say, 'You've got to figure this out or get a Passenger Bill of Rights, and make those people do what they promised.' Explain to people why they're plans have been delayed, and don't treat them as mindless consumers."