Air plan aims to cut delays
United, American OK lower-altitude flights

By Jon Hilkevitch
Tribune Transportation Writer
June 20, 2000

After years of resistance to a plan aimed at reducing delays, the nation's two largest airlines said Monday they have agreed to direct some of their short-distance flights across lower-altitude paths that are like alternate routes around crowded highways.

"Think of it as instead of driving on the jam-packed Kennedy Expressway at rush hour, you take Milwaukee Avenue and get to where you are going sooner," said Capt. Hank Krakowski, director of flight operations control at United Airlines.

In the wake of last year's record airline delays across the country and instances this spring in which planes loaded with passengers have sometimes sat for hours on O'Hare International Airport taxiways, United and American Airlines are agreeing to try the under-utilized lower airspace for flights of 500 miles or less originating at O'Hare.

"We've reached the threshold of gridlock at O'Hare during certain times of the day, leading us to the judgment that getting the plane up in the air would be a good compromise ... even if it costs us more money," Krakowski said.

The new strategy is part of a Federal Aviation Administration initiative aimed at reducing departure and airborne delays. The major airlines, which bear a large share of the responsibility for delayed and canceled flights because of scheduling practices, had until now rejected the FAA's requests to use the procedure, called Low Altitude Arrival Departure Routes (LAADR).

Flying lower, at between 18,000 and 23,000 feet where the thicker air creates more drag, typically adds several minutes to airline schedules and causes increased fuel consumption because jet engines operate less efficiently than at the traditional altitudes of 24,000 to 41,000 feet.

As a result, airlines had declined to use the lower altitudes. But the opportunity to depart on time and travel through the generally open airspace, versus being held at gates and taxiways until enough room opens up in the highly congested upper-airspace, has suddenly become attractive to the carriers.

Officials at American and United, who are following the lead earlier this spring of Northwest, TWA, Delta and Continental in other cities, said they hope the air-traffic procedure will save money in the long run by completing more flights on schedule and opening up space that is being abandoned in the high-altitude sectors for use by other aircraft.

"If accepting a lower altitude is going to get us out of town faster, then it's a no-brainer," said American spokesman John Hotard.

Added Delta spokeswoman Cindi Kurczewski: "The LAADR program has helped us keep the traffic moving much better than last year from our Cincinnati hub to Chicago."

The carriers and the FAA, however, will face the challenge of combining high- and low-altitude streams of aircraft into fewer paths when planes approach airports to land. And even with the procedure and others that FAA Administrator Jane Garvey implemented in March to improve safety and efficiency, the effort to get flights quickly in and out of the nation's airports could still be compromised by violent weather like the thunderstorm systems just east of Chicago that have inconvenienced travelers throughout the spring.

American and United said they plan to begin the low-altitude flights in two to three weeks after reviewing the procedure with their pilots. It will be used on up to 100 flights a day originating at O'Hare. The destinations include Des Moines, Grand Rapids, Mich., Indianapolis, Kansas City, Omaha, Rochester, Minn., and St. Louis.

The planes flying low-altitude routes will take off and land on the same trajectory as before and will not create any additional noise in communities surrounding O'Hare, said Bob Everson, manager of air-traffic tactical operations in the FAA's Great Lakes region.

"Low altitude doesn't mean low altitude from an environmental standpoint," said Everson, adding that a plane at 18,000 feet is more than 3 miles above the ground.

Opponents of O'Hare expansion expressed no immediate concerns about the airlines' efforts to dissolve bottlenecks.

"A plane climbing to 18,000 feet instead of 27,000 feet wouldn't seem to create a noise factor that would affect our suburban residents," said Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder, who is chairman of the city-suburban O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission. "Having said that, we are eager to see more of the newer planes come on line that can accelerate and elevate to higher altitudes more efficiently directly outside the airport property."

Krakowski said United will start with its Boeing 737 fleet and if the program is successful, expand to other aircraft flying longer routes. He said a low-altitude flight from O'Hare to Des Moines would add five minutes to the 65-minute trip and burn 500 pounds of additional fuel-increasing costs about $400 per flight.

Officials at United and American said there are no plans to increase ticket prices to offset the cost.

"If we can get 40 or so flights a day moving instead of being delayed at the airport, we are cutting the ground-delay time for other airplanes and that will save several thousand dollars per flight," United spokesman Joe Hopkins said. The savings would come, for instance, from flights being completed on time, eliminating the need to bring in relief pilots and flight attendants to take over for crews who exceed their allotted hours.

It is expected that initially, aircraft will stay within the 18,000- to 23,000-foot airspace during their entire flights. As longer-distance flights are blended into the program, pilots flying transcontinental routes would start at the lower altitude, then join the higher, more fuel-efficient airspace when space permits, said Jack Ryan, an air-traffic expert with the Air Transport Association, which represents the major airlines.

United said that, based on the results of the upcoming test project with low-altitude departures, it will consider expanding LAADR operations.

American, which on Saturday experienced its 10th straight day in which several hundred flights were canceled due to poor weather and congestion, might expand low-altitude flights to its base at Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport, Hotard said.

Airline delays nationwide declined 7 percent in May, according to the FAA. About 5,200 flights at O'Hare were delayed last month, marking a 26 percent improvement over the record delays of May 1999.

Garvey, however, cautioned against too much optimism. "We've still got a long, hot summer ahead of us, with plenty of storms," she said.