Monday, September 04, 2000

Airlines flying lower to speed flights

Airlines say it's helping cut delays

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Several major airlines — including Delta and Comair — are flying their planes at lower altitudes to shorten distancesand travel times in hopes of curbing this summer's epidemic of delays.

        Whether Low Altitude Arrival Departure Routes or “ladder” flights are cutting down on delays isn't clear, although initial indications are that they might be making a difference.

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        “We do feel it has been effective, and it will be something we continue to do,” said John Moffatt, manager of air traffic services system efficiency for Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, which ranked second among major carriers for on-time arrivals in June.

        The Federal Aviation Administration reported more than 44,000 flight delays in July alone, and that was an improvement from June.

        Increased use of ladder flights, which operate between 8,000 and 23,000 feet as opposed to the normal operating altitude of 29,000 to 35,000 feet, is one possible reason for the improvement from June to July.

        The FAA has approved such altitudes for commercial flights of 500 miles or less, and experts say there is no difference in noise at either ground level or in the plane.

        Safety can be a concern if some of the bigger jets fly below 10,000 feet and mingle with general aviation traffic, but Mr. Moffatt said Delta's ladder flights are kept above 18,000 feet.

        Turbulence is more likely, especially in winter, as is ice on the wings, points out John O'Brien, director of engineering and air safety for the Air Line Pilots Association.

        “We're willing to go along with it as long as they don't get down much below 20,000 feet,” Mr. O'Brien said. “You get much below that and you're mixing in with a section we already think is overcrowded, and you're dealing more with weather.”

        The option was one of many possible solutions to summertime delays issued in March by the FAA, which consulted the major airlines before releasing the list.

        But carriers such as United, Northwest and TWA only recently have turned to ladder flights because lower-flying planes burn more fuel to cut through the denser air.

        For example, a plane flying from Cincinnati to Chicago at 23,000 feet will burn about 59.7 gallons of jet fuel more than the same plane flying at 35,000 feet, Mr. Moffatt said.

        July's average market price for jet fuel was 82.49 cents a gallon, meaning the Chicago flight could cost the airline $49.24 more. And Delta operates at least a dozen flights to Chicago daily.

        Delta pays less than market price because it “hedges,” or buys fuel well in advance of use. The price Delta currently is paying for fuel was not available.

        Neither Delta nor the FAA have been tracking which flights have flown at the lower altitudes, and Mr. Moffatt said the decision to lower routes is made almost hourly after consulting with the FAA.

        But he did estimate that Delta's number of ladder flights systemwide has more than doubled in the past three months, with its hub at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport the airline's focal point for the new procedure.

        “Most of the flights affected are the northern routes, especially into or around O'Hare (in Chicago),” Mr. Moffatt said. “If we did this every day, though, the costs would be significantly higher.”

        Other airlines report success with the procedure.

        United officials say that between 30 and 40 ladder flights leave O'Hare daily, each saving 10 minutes in the air. The company is considering adding 30 more.

        Northwest reported a 33 percent increase in on-time arrivals in July compared with June, which company officials credited to the use of ladder flights out of Detroit and Minneapolis.

        The new trend should not translate into higher fares, said airline expert Darryl Jenkins.

        “Airlines still have got to compete, and there are a lot more flights at the higher level burning less fuel,” said Dr. Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute at The George Washington University. “It'll just be a hit on their operating costs, which they're willing to trade off for better on-time performance.”

        Delta's Mr. Moffatt said the airline will begin a three-month trial program in late October that will make ladder flights part of the schedule.

        The program will cost Delta an additional $1 million in fuel costs, Mr. Moffatt estimates, especially since it coincides with the busy holiday season.

        “We're trying to balance out the cost against the benefits of keeping the customers moving,” he said.

        Because it uses smaller regional jets, Comair has already implemented such a program, although how many flights were affected wasn't immediately available.

        The lower airspace has been underutilized since companies such as Comair switched from turboprop planes to jets, said Michael Goldschmidt, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky branch.

        “It keeps our traffic moving, instead of sitting on the ground, and better utilizes our airspace,” Mr. Goldschmidt said. “It does add to the number of planes in the sky, but they're at different levels, so safety's not an issue, and we just switch someone from the high sector to the lower sector to help monitor it.”

        Dr. Jenkins warned that the option is only a quick-fix, however, because the nation's air system is reaching its capacity.

        Mr. Moffatt agrees.

        “For sure, it is not the final solution to our problems,” he said. “But aside from safety, our goal is to improve our on-time performance, and we need to continue to explore things like this.”

        The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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