Airlines lose race against time
Peak periods at O'Hare often crammed with 20 flights a minute

By Alex Rodriguez
and Rogers Worthington

Tribune Staff Writers
August 13, 2000

Looking for insight into why blood-boiling flight delays define air travel these days? Do some math.

About 100 planes can depart from O'Hare International Airport every hour, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. That's fewer than two planes a minute.

But airlines routinely book 10, 20 or more flights to leave at the same minute.

On a typical day this summer-Aug. 9, for example-the airlines scheduled 23 flights to take off at 1:10 p.m., a review of schedule data provided by OAG Worldwide shows.

At 7 a.m., the airlines at O'Hare scheduled 17 departures.

At 5:45 p.m., they scheduled 14 takeoffs.

Not surprisingly, the on-time rates for many of these flights are as low as 10 percent.

Book a seat on one of those 5:45 p.m. flights and you'll probably be late-of the eight flights for which on-time data was available, just one was on time more often than it was late.

Flights take off at all times throughout the day, but demand drives the airlines to fill certain peak time slots with large clusters of departures. Throw bad weather, air traffic control glitches and other wrenches into the works, and delays avalanche, industry experts say.

"Things are getting crazy," said Richard Gritta, a finance professor at the University of Portland in Oregon who monitors the airline industry. "Travel is booming ... I think [the airlines] can accommodate [passengers] as long as nothing goes wrong. But if there's a slight glitch, things start to unravel."

Right now, an ongoing labor dispute between United Airlines and its pilots largely explains why the Elk Grove Township-based carrier's on-time performance is free-falling. In June, for example, 64 flights on United's regular schedule had on-time rates of just 10 percent.

The FAA does not regulate scheduling, but it allows airlines to set flights whenever they wish. So airlines pack as many flights as they can into the most popular time slots, regardless of the impact on delays.

"We schedule our aircraft at times when people want to fly," said United spokesman Andrew Plews. "That's what we do."

The airline is confident that under normal conditions the flights can reach their destinations on time, Plews said.

However, experts say the airlines recognize that operations would run more smoothly if there were cutbacks in flights during peak periods.

But in the fiercely competitive airline industry, it's not likely that one carrier would stick its neck out and be the first to make such a move.

"United would probably welcome reductions in flights during the busiest hours," said Joseph Schwieterman, a DePaul University transportation economist. "But it certainly doesn't want to be the one going first."

So for the time being, passengers at hub airports like O'Hare are stuck coping with exasperating delays that steadily snowball as the day wears on.

According to U.S. Department of Transportation data for May, 86.7 percent of the departures out of O'Hare from 6 to 7 a.m. were on time. But from 2 to 3 p.m., that rate dropped to 67.7 percent, and from 7 to 8 p.m., it fell to 52.2 percent.

Other hub airports experience the same progressive drop in on-time rates through the day, though not to the extent that O'Hare does. At Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport, 92 percent of flights depart on time from 6 to 7 a.m., but the rate falls to 78 percent from 2 to 3 p.m., and 76 percent from 7 to 8 p.m.

The labor dispute between United and its pilots has played a major role in delays at O'Hare this summer. The airline blames thousands of cancellations forced by crew shortages on pilots declining to work overtime.

It also has reacted to the flying public's growing impatience with delays by dropping more than 5,700 flights from its summer and fall schedule to shore up service to passengers.

United spokesman Joseph Hopkins also accused pilots of taxiing jets slowly to deliberately worsen the airline's on-time performance, though he would not disclose what, if any, evidence he had of that occurring.

Capt. Herb Hunter, chief spokesman for the United pilots union, said he was unaware of any pilots deliberately taxiing slowly. "As far as I know, no one is doing that."

But the problem of intolerable delays predates this summer's labor dispute and plagues the nation's airspace system, not just O'Hare. And there's no shortage of finger-pointing. While the airlines cite bad weather and the need to modernize the nation's air traffic control system, air traffic controllers and aviation consumer groups blame the airline industry's scheduling practices.

At a congressional hearing last October convened by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation, Randy Schwitz, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, argued that airlines routinely jam flights into "peak times."

"This is where the laws of physics kick in," Schwitz testified. "Given runway capacity, only a certain number of flights can depart and arrive within a specified time period. Therefore, airline overscheduling during peak hours guarantees delays at busy airports, even in good weather. It's like trying to cram 10 pounds of sand into a 5-pound bag."

Financially, stuffing peak time slots with more and more flights makes sense, Gritta said. The airline that can convince prospective customers that it flies anywhere at any time has a better opportunity to reign over its competitors.

"It's marketing-the more flights you have to more places, the more traffic you generate," Gritta said. "It is kind of a war of market share going on. He who has the most flight frequencies dominates the market."

The industry disputes the charge that airlines routinely overschedule. For the first seven months of the year, only 8 percent of the delays at the nation's airports were due to flight volume, said Jack Ryan, vice president of air traffic management for the Air Transport Association, the airline industry's trade group.

About 74 percent of delays were blamed on bad weather, Ryan said.

"No airline is going to schedule so that someone is going to have to sit on the ground for an hour or two," Ryan said, "because you are not going to have many people wanting to ride on your airline."

Whatever the reason for delays, United has tried to improve on-time performance in part by adding four minutes to the block of time allotted to each flight for departure and arrival, Hopkins said.

Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Project, an advocacy group for air travel passengers, said remedies should include "truth-in-scheduling" regulation that would require a travel agent or airline ticket agent to disclose to a customer if a flight has an on-time performance of 50 percent or worse.

"Every computer reservation has the on-time statistic ... you can get that information as a passenger, but you have to ask for it," Hudson said. "[This] would reduce the number of chronically delayed flights. They would tend to become less popular."

The airlines could also encourage customers to book flights during off-peak hours by discounting those fares, as some industry observers suggest.

But United isn't considering that. "Business is very strong right now," Hopkins said. "We have a strong economy and we and the other airlines are the beneficiaries."

One solution United is eyeing is the use of larger planes to meet growing demand. DePaul's Schwieterman said he believes the industry's move to larger planes is inevitable. In the last 10 years, the airlines have gone to smaller aircraft sizes. Now, though, 727s are gradually being replaced by 757s and lengthened 737s.

"A larger aircraft might be the answer to freeing up capacity," Schwieterman said. "I think that is part of O'Hare's solution. Find a mechanism to [foster] use of larger aircraft."