Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Summer air traffic to soar

Plane delays to worsen, report warns travelers

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

If you're flying this summer from the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, be prepared to wait.

Almost one in five flights to or from the airport was delayed last summer, the worst rate since summer 2000.

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But things could get worse this year here and at airports throughout the country, a federal report released Tuesday warned. That's because airlines are adding flights as summer travel demand returns to pre-Sept. 11 levels, resulting in possible traffic jams for airports and headaches for air traffic controllers at the nation's busiest airports.

Delay problems here might make other regional airports such as Dayton even more attractive to Greater Cincinnati residents.

"Air fare is already really high out of Cincinnati, and Dayton is a much smaller, less congested airport," said Scott Fisher, co-owner of a Sharonville computer software and consulting company who has sent employees on 20 to 30 trips so far this year.

Fisher, who plans to make two or three trips this summer himself, said "we've only seen mechanical type delays recently, but that doesn't mean it isn't going to get worse this summer."

Officials expect the number of landings and takeoffs at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky to be up 6 percent over last summer (more than 640 departures alone), exceeding the number of takeoffs and landings of the summer of "airline hell" four years ago. Twenty-five percent of flights nationally were delayed during that summer.

"Although we are unlikely to see the same levels of disruption that we saw during 2000 ... the potential for congestion and delays this summer in some key airports is very real," Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead told the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday.

Mead's report named Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky the 15th-worst major airport for delays last summer, when 20 percent of flights in or out of the airport were delayed. The worst? Newark, N.J.

The worst-ever month here for delays was December 2000, when slowdowns by pilots at Delta Air Lines and Comair and snowstorms led to an on-time arrival rate of 64.5 percent. A delay is defined as when a plane departs or arrives more than 15 minutes later than scheduled.

Winter remains a bigger problem for delays locally, but increased traffic and thunderstorms can play havoc during the summer. The average delay in Cincinnati last summer was more than 48 minutes, the report issued Tuesday showed.

Mead acknowledged that the numbers appear "counterintuitive" because the airline industry is financially struggling. Delta, whose Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky hub is the second-largest in its system, has lost more than $3 billion in the past three years.

But Mead said the expansion of low-cost service elsewhere and the use of smaller regional jets to supplant routes formerly served by larger jets is clogging the air traffic system again. Airlines such as Delta generally will use more than one regional jet flight on carriers such as Erlanger-based Comair to replace a single large jet route.

New runway on schedule

Local airport and airline officials acknowledge that they are planning for possible delays again this summer.

"That's why we continued with the new runway project, even after Sept. 11," aviation director Robert Holscher said, referring to the $252.2 million project, which includes a new north-south runway and a 2,000-foot extension to the east-west runway. The new runways are expected to go into service late next year.

Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said the agency has taken many steps to curb delays, including:

• Cutting the space between planes in the skies from 15 miles to 10.

• Raising the number of flights Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky can accept from 72 to 80 an hour.

• Working with airlines to cut taxi times by 30 seconds on average.

• Holding departures from surrounding airports in Dayton, Lexington and Louisville when delays hit 90 minutes here, to help clear airspace congestion.

Comair flights reduced

Comair, by far the busiest airline at the local airport with 326 daily departures, said it has voluntarily reduced the number of flights during peak hours - generally 8 to 10 a.m. and 5 to 7 p.m. - in the last few years.

Comair spokesman Nick Miller said 33.8 percent of the airline's local schedule is now flown during lower-demand hours.

"It allows us to operate more efficiently and mitigate any congestion concerns that might arise," Miller said. "It's better for the airline and better for our customers."

Fifteen airports nationally, including Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International, had flight delays at least 20 percent of the time last summer. All 15 are expected to see at least a 6 percent increase in the number of flights this year, which is likely to add to delays.

Slow and getting slower


% delayed summer 2003
Average delay (min.)% increase in operations summer 2004
Newark 2759.197%
Philadelphia 25.451.279%
NY-Kennedy 25.1356.3620%
West Palm Beach 24.4746.4912%
Atlanta 24.2448.789%
Raleigh-Durham 23.4548.2913%
Fort Lauderdale 22.9549.1210%
Washington-Dulles 22.5351.5917%
Orlando 21.7649.289%
NY-LaGuardia 21.6659.668%
Baltimore 21.6553.455%
San Antonio 21.2845.556%
Chicago-O'Hare 21.1864.269%
Boston 20.9749.749%
Cincinnati 19.5748.416%
Source: Department of Transportation Inspector General


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