August 2, 2000

There's blame enough to go around, but the key players responsible for this summer's epidemic of flight delays need to be singled out, loudly and often.

How else, but by blaming and shaming, are consumers to win improved conditions, like flights that take off less than an hour after they're supposed to?

Which helps identify culprit No. 1--ourselves.

Consumers shouldn't have to shame and complain. We should punish the offending airlines by switching brands. But we don't. So hooked are we on finding the cheapest fare, or adding miles to frequent flier accounts, that factors such as comfort and on-time performance barely figure into purchase decisions. That needs to change, for no amount of ragging or regulating can substitute for good old market discipline.

That bit of self-flagellation aside, let us call the roll:

The airlines, for marketing reasons, collectively schedule more departures during morning and evening rush hours than airports can handle. This causes delays. They also cancel off-peak flights that are insufficiently booked. This causes blind rage. Then they lie about it, blaming the weather or the control tower, even though a new report by a federal inspector found airlines responsible for 74 percent of all departure delays.

Then again, that inspector may be covering for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is years behind on its promised satellite-based navigation system that would free pilots from the antiquated wait-your-turn-and-stay-in-line route system now in use.

The FAA also seems out of touch with working conditions in its own towers and tracking stations, where members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association have been staging wildcat job actions. Two weeks ago controllers at the Elgin tracking center showed up management by lengthening approach intervals so much that arrivals at O'Hare International Airport fell three hours behind. At first the FAA blamed upper-altitude winds. Now they're investigating.

Then there's the Air Line Pilots Association, whose members also think torturing customers is a good labor tactic. United Airlines pilots, in particular, have been refusing to work overtime. And the union, which is dominated by younger pilots, supports the FAA's hare-brained rule that pilots retire at age 60. Never mind the impact of the pilot shortage on consumers, or safety data showing older pilots have fewer accidents.

There's blame to go around, all right. And the fixing of it will not be delayed.