February 5, 2001

Chicago Sun-Times

Airport delays could get even worse

February 5, 2001


Don't expect a vacation from airline delays this year.

Many experts believe gridlock will be as bad in 2001 as the last two years--and quite likely worse.

Aside from the usual reasons--the skyrocketing number of flights, lack of runway and technology improvements, airline overscheduling--several other factors might collaborate to make travel, particularly at O'Hare Airport, slow-going.

Controversial but delay-reducing landing procedures probably will not resume this year at a critical O'Hare runway configuration because of continuing safety concerns, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

But restrictions on the number of flights allowed at O'Hare during the busiest hours will be relaxed in July, leading to more operations, some say, during the already-busy summer travel season.

And American Airlines, responsible for roughly 40 percent of O'Hare's flights, is expected to begin formal contract negotiations in late spring with its pilots, raising concerns that they will engage in the same tactics United Airlines' pilots enlisted last year.

United pilots refused overtime and, on occasion, took their time taxiing to gates to show their displeasure with management. The airline agreed to make its pilots the highest-paid aviators in the country only as cancellations and delays mounted.

Asked whether similar problems can be expected this year, Chicago Aviation Commissioner Thomas Walker said "it's possible," although he's not predicting trouble.

But already some American pilots are looking ahead, and they aren't optimistic about the future.

"It would not be surprising to me if some pilots were offended or angered by American's conduct and individually chose not to fly overtime flights," said one pilot who wished to remain anonymous.

American spokesman John Hotard said his airline has been trying to build better relationships with unions.

Meanwhile, limitations on the number of flights at O'Hare, the second most congested facility last year behind New York's La Guardia, will be scaled back this summer--in effect only from 2:45 p.m. to 8:14 p.m.

Asked whether there will be more delays this year, Craig Burzych said "no question."

The president of the air traffic controllers union at O'Hare said his O'Hare colleagues already are handling 100 additional flights many days, and "the word is the schedule's going to increase even more in the summer, because of the phaseout" of restrictions.

Making matters worse is the continued absence of "land-and-hold-short operations," referred to as LAHSOs, on two runways. The procedures, which help controllers process more aircraft, involve airplanes landing on one runway while planes simultaneously depart from an intersecting strip.

This procedure was halted on some runway configurations last year while officials tested the safety of guidelines to be used by pilots who abort a landing to avoid hitting a departing aircraft.

"The tests were a dismal failure," said Capt. Paul McCarthy, air safety chairman for the Air Line Pilots Association, the group that pushed for the safety review. They found a potential for a midair "tie" between two planes, he said.

"Without some sort of technological fix, we're not going to be able to do LAHSOs at O'Hare," McCarthy said.

Weather, responsible for about 70 percent of all delays last year, remains a wild card.

If the economy falls into a full-blown recession, a decrease in demand for travel could cut delays, officials said.

American has "isolated" O'Hare by altering some routes in such a way that if there were delays, they wouldn't ripple across the entire system.

O'Hare expects a 0.7 percent increase in air traffic this year.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta last month told senators that the air traffic control system has not kept pace with demand. "And I need to be very candid with you on this point: We are very likely to have similar, or worse, delay problems this year as well."

The soaring delays have put the issue of runway expansion on the front burner. Just last week, federal officials signaled their desire to speed up the procedures to build new runways. And Mayor Daley and Gov. Ryan agreed last week to discuss aviation issues, including the possibility of a new O'Hare runway and a third regional airport.

[Chicago ATC News]