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FAA Official Discusses Flight Delays Across United States

August 7, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: It’s been, to say the least, a trying year for travelers: 900,000 flights delayed, 93,000 cancellations. They’ve dropped the airlines’ and industry’s on-time performance ratings to the worst they’ve been in 13 years, according to a report yesterday from the Department of Transportation.

The government says an increase in the numbers of flyers is somewhat to blame for the problems, as is the weather. Today, some passengers at Washington Ronald Reagan National Airport expressed their frustrations.

TERRELL REAGAN, Airline Passenger: My flight was two-hours delayed, no reason. Then I was told it was leaving at 1:45, which is right now, but it’s not. It’s leaving at 3:15. So they called to check on the flight, and they said, “No, it’s going to leave at 2:00. Go stand in line, because it may leave early.” So if it leaves early, you get credit for an early flight that’s five hours late, I guess. Have patience.

DAVE CHURCH, Airline Passenger: Anytime you fly, I’d say you have a 50-50 chance of getting where you’re going on time.

JANICE BLAKE, Airline Passenger: We’re paying for this; we should get what we expect. They need to be on time.

RAY SUAREZ: The airline industry and the Federal Aviation Administration point to an out-of-date air traffic system as a big part of the problem. Congress is currently considering legislation that would fund the FAA’s next-generation system.

For a closer look at that and what’s causing many of these headaches for passengers, we’re joined by FAA Administrator Marion Blakey.

And welcome. A third of all flights delayed. For the purpose of this conversation, what’s a delayed flight, technically?

Defining the problem

MARION BLAKEY, FAA Administrator: Well, a delay is 15 minutes off schedule from what was projected to be the scheduled departure time, so there can be big delays or little ones. But, unfortunately, they're tending to be longer, and they're backing up throughout the system.

RAY SUAREZ: Worst year since the agency collected data, what would you say are the top two or three causes for that? What's pushing those numbers?

MARION BLAKEY: Well, you know, I'd say congestion, congestion, congestion â?¦ but we certainly had a bad weather season this summer. I think everybody who's out there knows that we've had thunderstorms piling up on each other. You know, you look at the Doppler radar, and you see a line of red that will really cut the country half the time.

So those are issues. But underneath it, we've got a lot of people who are flying, and it does back us up because the air traffic control system can't handle the kind of volume we're doing.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there also smaller planes being operated by a lot of carriers, and thus making the skies more crowded for roughly the same number of people as there might be on bigger planes?

MARION BLAKEY: You have it exactly. One of the phenomena is, of course, that everyone likes to fly point to point, and they like to fly on the schedule they want. That has meant the airlines have scheduled a lot of what we call RJs, regional jets, smaller but you can go a lot more places, and you can fly a lot more times in the system that way, all of which, you know, caters to passenger preference, as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Are certain routes, certain departure airports more vulnerable to this kind of delay, especially this time of year?

MARION BLAKEY: Oh, absolutely. In fact, when you look at the problems in the system, you have to say that some of the big hubs are really what's affecting the whole system.

JFK, La Guardia, Newark, the whole New York-area airports, they sneeze and everyone across the country gets a cold because there are a lot of connecting flights. Same thing is true for Chicago, for Dallas, the Washington area. We're seeing a lot of delays here. So, yes, there are real problems in the system because of congestion on both coasts and in the middle of the country.

Hard times for the airline industry

RAY SUAREZ: Now, with planes costing what they cost, many millions of dollars, you can't just have lots and lots of extra ones sitting around. But is it advisable for the system to be so tight that if one plane doesn't get where it's going exactly when it's needed, that tumbling domino affect starts with crews not in the wrong place, planes not in the right place, and people inevitably waiting on the ground?

MARION BLAKEY: Well, remember we have gone through a very rough patch for the airline industry. After all, after 9/11, there was a huge slump. There was a lot of constriction and demand, and we had lot of bankruptcies. That caused carriers certainly to reduce the overall number of aircraft, slim down in terms of cost.

And, yes, they are running, as we say, a very lean operation these days, which is great for passengers in terms of keeping down costs and fares, but, boy, I'll tell you there is almost no margin as a result when you have problems in the system.

In fact, what's amazing is we're running at almost 90 percent load factors. That means 90 percent of every aircraft have people in the seats. A cancellation, a delay occurs, and there's no back-up. Where are you going to put people when you have a problem? And that, again, causes everyone to be waiting.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there any penalty? If you're running an airline that's so tightly tuned that if one thing goes wrong, suddenly you're canceling dozens, scores of flights out of your daily schedule, what's the pushback? Does the federal government say anything? Do consumers get to say anything?

MARION BLAKEY: Well, certainly, we publish the issue of on-time statistics so that everyone can see. We think it's important that the airlines really step up and be very accountable for chronically delayed flights. And we also think it's important when there are major delays that there be certain basic things that passengers can count on, you know, enough food, enough water, medical needs being taken care of.

So there's a lot to this that the carriers need to do and should do, but at the end of the day we're going to have to have a different system to be able to handle the kind of volume, because a lot of people want to fly these days.

The FAA's "Next Generation"

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the FAA's plan for a system overhaul is called NextGen or next-generation. What does it involve?

MARION BLAKEY: It basically means moving from the kind of technology we're using today, which is really 1960s-era architecture, radar, you know, one controller talking by radio to one aircraft, to an automated system that relies on satellites.

You know, we all take GPS for granted in our cars, but that is not the way our system of air traffic control is set up. And we need to move to a satellite-based system which can handle a lot more traffic and, frankly, do it in a way that is more fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly. It's going to add an extra margin of safety there, too.

RAY SUAREZ: So this system would help controllers keep track of the airplanes that are in the air better. How would that help address some of the problems that we've been talking about?

MARION BLAKEY: Well, basically, with this kind of system you can fly a lot more precise routes. You can fly precision approaches and landings, which means even in bad weather or worse weather -- let's put it that way, not in a huge thunderstorm -- but you can still come into a lot of airports that today it's very difficult to do. So there's a lot that the technology can do.

And the system we're talking about, ultimately, because it is much more precise than radar means you're going to be able to bring aircraft closer together, and that means you can get more up there. So all of this goes to improvements.

I also will say, there are things we can do in terms of the airspace, as well. Redesigning the way we're using the airspace is important in a lot of parts of the country. We're moving to that in the New York-New Jersey area at the end of the summer, and that is something that will also help. That's the intent, is to make better use of it.

RAY SUAREZ: Does that mean noisier residential areas?

MARION BLAKEY: No. In fact, the plan that we have proposed, that we are looking at as the primary option right now, is one that would reduce noise in the New York-New Jersey area for about 500,000 people. You know, that's a lot. But most importantly, it will reduce the delays over time by about 20 percent.

So there are things we're trying to do near term, but the long term is â?¦ to change out the system to the NextGen, and Congress has got to step up to that, because it's a billion-dollar-a-year investment that our country needs to make to be able to do that, and to tell you the truth, to keep up with what's going around the world, because everywhere else they're changing out to a satellite-based system, as well.

Multiple parts to a solution

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the estimated price tag is $30 billion to $40 billion, and that will help aircraft that are already aloft, but it won't address gate shortages, insufficient runway capacity, baggage-handling facilities that are groaning under the weight of what they're handling already. How do you handle the sort of totality of an overburdened system?

MARION BLAKEY: Well, that's a market basket of things that we need to address. And you're right. More runways can certainly help. There's no question about the fact that adequate baggage-handling and, frankly, a little bit more capacity to handle when flights are delayed and cancellations occur that you're not just backing people up, because that affects the baggage as well as the people who are involved, all of those are important things.

And a number of airports, I have to tell you, around the country have plans to add gates and improve the terminals. We're very proud of the fact that, in the last 10 years, we have added 10 major runways at airports around the country that are the big ones that matter.

So, you know, there have certainly been and will be improvements on that score. You've got to do all of it, really, to handle the fact that people want to fly. And it is an absolute backbone for the economy in this century; there's no question about it.

RAY SUAREZ: The airline industry has a difference of opinion with the FAA about who should pay how much of that $30 billion to $40 billion. Where do the negotiations stand?

MARION BLAKEY: Well, what we know is this. Out of the $30 billion to $40 billion, close to half of it is going to be the cost to the operators to equip their aircraft with the ability to use a satellite-based system. So that's part of it.

But the rest of that infrastructure, which is the FAA's investment that we're going to have to make, basically what we think is that we should have a more equitable system. Right now, the passenger, the guy who's sitting back in 22-C, is actually paying more than his fair share of the cost of the system. We have looked at this. We've done a very careful accounting for how much it's costing to run air traffic control.

And right now, what's happening is that you find that the commercial carriers are paying more than the cost that their requirements imply and, at the same time, frankly, we've got a lot of growth in the business jet area, which is great. You know, again, this is important for our economy. But right now, they are paying relatively little into the system, and that needs to be addressed to be able to have a more equitable sharing of the cost. So everyone has to step up.

RAY SUAREZ: It's no surprise, those private jet passengers and owners are saying they're being asked to pay too much, too, but that's for another day. Marion Blakey, thanks for coming by.

MARION BLAKEY: Thank you for having me.