FAA says program to battle delays isn't working

Thursday, July 13, 2000

A Federal Aviation Administration program designed to reduce flight delays at most of the nation's airports, including Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, isn't measuring up, according to data released Tuesday.

After record delays in 1999 and 1998, the FAA unveiled new initiatives to keep planes flying despite poor weather. But FAA statistics show the measures haven't done much to reduce delays in the first six months of this year.

Many experts predicted passengers will continue to endure long delays until the antiquated air-traffic system is modernized, an effort that could take as long as 20 years.

"While we have had some unusual thunderstorm patterns again this summer, I don't think the FAA's much-vaunted initiative to route planes around bad weather passed the laugh test," said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association.

"Despite the promised improvements, you still have airplanes packed with passengers being held on the ground for hours all over the country and the FAA is crying 'Weather, weather, weather."'

The FAA's new initiatives were designed to provide immediate improvements in the air-traffic control system. Under the plan, the minimum distance between planes flying the same route was to be shortened to fit more planes into congested airspace.

The FAA also promised that planes held on the ground because of threatening weather would be given a specific projected departure time, unlike in the past when passengers weren't told when their planes might lift off.

But the delay statistics for January through June reveal where the FAA measures have fallen short.

On-time performance nationwide fell to a record low in June. Delays in the air-traffic control system - registered when flights are delayed 15 minutes or longer - totaled 48,448 for the month. That's a 16.5 percent increase over June 1999 and surpasses the record number of delays last July, the FAA said.

The airlines recognize the industry has a long way to go.

"There is a crisis of delays out there and people should expect major delays every summer until the FAA starts addressing the underlying problems instead of just the symptoms," said David Fuscus, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents the major airlines.

FAA officials declined to comment on the new system, although they say it wasn't intended to be a panacea.

"It's a complex process and we're making improvements all the time," said FAA spokesman Bill Shumann.

At O'Hare, 6 percent of all flights were delayed between January and June of this year, compared with 6.5 percent of all flights over the same period last year. At Midway Airport, 1.4 percent of flights were delayed, compared with 1.2 percent of flights during the first six months last year.