By William P. Bohlen
Washington Bureau
July 26, 2000

WASHINGTON -- Cramming another item into a stuffed overhead bin may be easier than getting a straight answer on airline delays.

A little more than a week after hours-long delays at O'Hare International Airport angered travelers, officials of the Transportation Department and the Federal Aviation Administration told a Senate subcommittee Tuesday that airlines are failing to properly notify customers of the reasons for such delays.

"We found that there is an absence of a reporting system," said Kenneth Mead, inspector general for the Transportation Department, whose office simultaneously released an audit of the air carriers' flight delays and cancellations.

Moreover, because of discrepancies in the various methods of determining what constitutes a flight delay, Mead said, there are far more delays than those reported.

The department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics, for example, counts a flight on time if it rolls away from the gate within 15 minutes of its scheduled departure time. That plane could sit on the runway for hours, but it would be considered on time.

The FAA also keeps statistics on delays, but its numbers come from a 15-minute window after a pilot's request to taxi out of the gate. Under that system, the time passengers spend waiting to board or sitting on the plane at the gate doesn't count; the clock starts ticking only after the pilot radios his request to start moving.

According to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, flight delays from 1995 to 1999 increased 11 percent, to 2,076,443 from 1,863,265. For the same period, FAA numbers show an increase of 58 percent, to 374,116 from 236,802.

Both sets of numbers are technically accurate, according to the report, but conflict because of the differing definitions of "delay." The report advocates a common system of reporting delays and their causes so that all agencies and industry groups are in agreement.

Recent incidents at O'Hare are a prominent example of confusion over what constitutes a delay.

On July 17, despite beautiful weather, air traffic at O'Hare slowed markedly, causing waits of up to three hours for some passengers. Airlines and meteorologists blamed protests by some air traffic controllers upset with new management.

Many passengers, however, were told that weather was to blame. .

"What happened in Chicago made me heartsick," said FAA administrator Jane Garvey, adding that she expects to be briefed on the situation.

Blame over the delays has become a hot potato, with air traffic controllers faulting airlines for scheduling too many flights at peak times, government officials blaming adverse weather and equipment problems, and airlines citing the controllers and the weather.

"The air is thicker with accusations than with aircraft," said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), head of the Senate Appropriations Committee's transportation subcommittee. "We need to get away from the blame game."

Ed Kragh, an air traffic controller at Newark International Airport, the airport with the most flight delays for six of the last seven years, told the subcommittee that the airlines schedule too many flights at peak travel times, in the morning and early evening, and not flying in off-peak times.

"In the first hour, we are shoveling 10 pounds of sand into 5-pound bags," Kragh said. After that, he said, it is like putting 2 pounds of sand into 5-pound bags.

But airlines schedule their flights based on economics, according to Diana Cronan, spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, a trade organization that represents the airlines.

"The bottom line is that each airline has to meet their customers' demands or they will lose their customers," Cronan said.

Kragh and Garvey emphasized that the primary goal in controlling air traffic is safety and that that should not be lost in the outrage over delays.

"Sometimes, delays are a built-in safety mechanism," Garvey said.

Many senators also took the opportunity to blast other aspects of airline customer service, a favorite topic on Capitol Hill after a July 11 report that airlines are failing to live up to commitments to customers.

"Airline customers would like to be treated more like customers than cows," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

"I think they [airline companies] should understand that they are not in the airline business, they are in the transportation business," said Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.).