April 24, 2001 Chicago Tribune

By John Schmeltzer, Tribune staff reporter. Staff reporter Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.

April 24, 2001

Severe weather played havoc with airline operations at O'Hare International Airport over the last two days, prompting a rash of delayed flights and the bitter realization that, for passengers, the coming travel season will not be any easier than the last.

Fewer than half of O'Hare's approximate 2,500 daily flights arrived or departed on time Sunday, as heavy rain disrupted operations in the morning and again late in the afternoon. It didn't get any better Monday.

Anticipating an outbreak of thunderstorms across the Midwest, the Federal Aviation Administration reduced the number of planes allowed to land at O'Hare by 20 percent, forcing planes across the country to remain at their gates. Delays averaged nearly three hours, and some flights were delayed nearly five hours, airlines reported.

"It's spring thunderstorms. What do you expect?" said Mary Frances Fagan, a spokeswoman for American Airlines.

Unfortunately for travelers, the same factors that snarled air traffic last year are still at play, namely capacity constraints and labor troubles, airline and industry experts say. The unpredictability of the weather only adds to the problematic brew.

"This summer and next summer is going to continue to be tough," said Rono Dutta, president of United Airlines. "Air traffic delays are going up."

David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, which lobbies Congress and the regulatory agencies on behalf of airline passengers, said the situation isn't surprising.

"If you block an entire interstate or two, you are going to get gridlock whether it is in the air or on the ground," Stempler said. "Until the FAA changes the way it manages the process and until we get complete access to Canadian air space and get more use of military air space, it is going to be hard to make substantive improvements in the system."

Some of those labor pressures eased over the weekend, after the pilots of Delta Air Lines, the nation's third-largest carrier, approved a contract that will boost their salaries 24 percent to 34 percent over the next three years.

Yet trouble spots remain. Machinists and flight attendants are still pressuring United for new contracts, while flight attendants for American are threatening to strike. And American's contract with its pilots becomes amendable later this year.

United found out just how disruptive labor troubles can be last summer, when thousands of its flights were delayed or canceled after pilots refused to work overtime in their bid for a new contract.

But weather also played a big role in United's and other carriers' troubles. FAA figures show that of the 426,500 flights delayed last year, 295,500, or nearly 70 percent, were due to weather. For example, when summer thunderstorms battered the upper Midwest throughout the month of June, a record 50,000 flights were delayed.

Department of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has said delays won't decline appreciably until new runways, which he says are needed at 25 major airports, are constructed.

Two weeks ago, U.S. Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who have called for the addition of two new runways at O'Hare, said Gov. George Ryan and 11 other governors should be stripped of their powers to block such projects. Federal law gives such power to 12 states, granting the governors the power to approve new runways, which can conflict with local wishes.

Ryan opposes adding new runways at O'Hare without addressing the area's overall air transportation needs. He argues a new airport is needed.

"Anytime you take authority from a state, I'm not for that," Ryan said Monday. "We want to make sure they don't erode a state's authority to run its own government."

At a City Club breakfast, City Aviation Commissioner Thomas Walker told business and civic leaders that O'Hare has adequate capacity for about the next 10 years without new runways. He said he appreciates the Iowa senators' support to expand O'Hare, but he does not want to cede the city's authority.

"There are some pros and cons to a federal pre-emption to be considered," Walker said. "But we would not like to see the authority taken from the city in determining how and when it invests in its infrastructure."

The FAA is preparing to release data Wednesday that detail capacity of the nation's 31 largest airports. The data are expected to be especially critical of O'Hare.

With little hope for significant improvement in the air traffic control system this year, the airlines are unveiling multimillion-dollar efforts to communicate delay and cancellation information to passengers.

United and American, for example, use a combination of cellular phones, pagers and hand-held computers to notify passengers electronically if their flight is delayed.

When flight schedules are disrupted, United says its new customer advocate center is prepared to step in to accommodate customers with alternative flights--in some cases before a customer is aware there is a problem.

Despite those efforts, however, Stempler says passengers need to beware the potential problems they face on their flights.

"The FAA and the airlines are dancing as fast as they can with the constraints and limitations," he said.

[Chicago ATC News]