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Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Major U.S. Airlines Agree to Reduce Flights

August 19, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Beginning in November, air travelers will get some relief from chronic delays at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, delays that can back up air traffic across the entire nation.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta announced at O’Hare yesterday that the airlines there had agreed to cut back flights in peak arrival hours.

NORMAN MINETA: We estimate the agreement will bring a 20 percent reduction in the time that travelers lose to delay. We also expect to cut delay times by imposing a limit on new flights that airlines were planning to add before the holidays.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The agreement comes after O’Hare, the nation’s busiest airport in terms of landings and takeoffs, also became the nation’s most delayed airport. Only two-thirds of O’Hare flights have been on time this year.

On good weather days air traffic controllers say they can handle 100 arrivals per hour. But controllers say between noon and 8:00 P.M. there are often 110 arrivals scheduled. With no room to land those ten airplanes are either held on the ground at the departure airport or put into a holding pattern.

And then O’Hare’s problem quickly becomes a national problem. The FAA says since last fall O’Hare delays led to a 25 percent increase in delays at 35 airports around the country. The delays were so bad, frequent travelers were often forced to change their travel plans.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: How often do you think your flights at O’Hare are delayed?

CARLA MOORE: Probably more than half, about 75 percent of my flights are delayed.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: How frustrating is that?

CARLA MOORE: Very frustrating, especially when you have meetings the same day. I very rarely schedule flights on the same day now because I can’t get to them on time.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The delays mounted when airlines began to add flights as air travel recovered from post 9/11 losses. The number of landings and takeoffs increased by twenty thousand last year and were projected to increase by another fifty to sixty thousand this year.

The increasingly congested skies began to affect the performance of air traffic controllers, resulting in a sharp rise of controller errors says air traffic controller Craig Burzych.

CRAIG BURZYCH, Air Traffic Controllers Association: There is a built-in pressure that comes along with over scheduling at the airport. You have constant lines of airplanes, controllers feel pressure to work faster, faster and faster and as with any job the faster you work the more pressured you are, the more chance you have of making a mistake.

We’re making mistakes. Major mistakes? We’ve had a few. Most are minor. Any mistake by a controller can be potentially a disastrous mistake. We don’t want to go there. There is clearly an increase in error percentages. It’s not a good situation.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Six months ago United and American Airlines voluntarily agreed to cut back flights by 7.5 percent. But new discount airlines quickly moved to fill that time and delays remained high. So in early August the FAA took the unprecedented step of calling O’Hare’s airlines to Washington to hammer out an agreement to cut back on flights.

After two weeks of negotiations the airlines agreed to accept 88 arrivals per hour from 7:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. (Applause) The number goes to 92 when general aviation and charter airlines are included, international flights are excluded. FAA Administrator Marion Blakey.

MARION BLAKEY: O’Hare will no longer be the place where on-time schedules come to die. Less than two weeks ago in Washington, we held some pretty tough negotiations. Today we do have a resolution. The important thing is it’s voluntary.

When it comes to O’Hare, cooperation with the FAA has succeeded over regulation, and, in fact, we’re going to have a substantial reduction in delays at O’Hare and in Chicago.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: United and American operate 86 percent of the flights at O’Hare and will make the most cuts and schedule changes. They have agreed to drop 37 flights in peak arrival hours.

Though financially strapped United is still trying to emerge from bankruptcy says it will spread its schedule out into non peak hours and will probably cut no more than six or eight flights.

PETER McDONALD, VP of Operations, United Airlines: It will have minimal financial impact. Sure we have some minor revenue impact. But we have significant cost savings because of the delay reduction, so it’s minimal impact to United.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The remaining airlines at O’Hare are being asked to cut in proportion to the number of flights they have. Independence Airline, with 12 daily flights into O’Hare will only have to move two flights out of peak arrival hours.

RICK DELISI, Independence Air: This is a satisfactory result. This is result that everybody thinks is the right result and we’re pleased with it.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But new carriers wanting to fly out of O’Hare will have to get FAA approval first. And existing airlines must freeze flights at current levels.

Transportation analyst Joe Schwieterman says that will effectively keep low cost airlines out of O’Hare and keep ticket prices high.

JOE SCHWIETERMAN, DePaul University: Well, the big downside is that it gets the federal government back in the business of deciding who can fly here and really O’Hare has been frozen in time with two high cost hubs while the rest of the country has seen an infusion of low cost airlines.

That’s not going to happen here anytime soon because of these agreements.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The flight limits are temporary. They will expire in April when the FAA and the airlines with meet to evaluate how well they are working.