July 19, 2000
Four experts discuss what's behind the sagging pace of travel through the nation's airports.
GWEN IFILL: The scene Monday at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport: Sunny skies, pleasant summer weather, yet thousands of passengers stranded on the ground and in the air -- mysterious flight delays that caused United Airlines alone to cancel 20% of its flights between 3:00 PM and 8:00 PM. No one was happy.
CORRESPONDENT: Tell me what happened.
PASSENGER: We were canceled in Milwaukee. No explanation, bused up here by limo; canceled here -- going to Tampa. We don't know where we're at.
CORRESPONDENT: How frustrating is this?
PASSENGER: Very. We're supposed to be at work tomorrow morning.
GWEN IFILL: The delays spread like a virus. Airports throughout the East Coast canceled their flights into Chicago, one of the nation's busiest hubs.
MONIQUE BOND, Chicago Department of Aviation: There also have been numerous canceled flights on the arrivals side as well as the departures side. So not only has the traffic slowed down on the arrivals, we are also starting to see the departure side affected as well.
GWEN IFILL: The Federal Aviation Administration said the problem was caused by strong, high- altitude winds. The Chicago Tribune reported that a dispute between traffic controllers and managers was the cause. The Air Controllers' Union said there was no organized slowdown. O'Hare is not the only airport in trouble this summer. The FAA reported that flight delays in June hit a new record. Nearly 50,000 flights affected; up almost 17 percent over last year. Most agree that there are a number of factors at work here. Severe summer thunderstorms were a major factor last month -- but also blamed mechanical problems, an antiquated air control traffic system, out-of- date ground facilities, and overloaded flight schedules. And over the last five years, the problem has only grown, with travel delays up 50 percent, runway flight delays up a whopping 130 percent, outright flight cancellations up 68 percent.
PASSENGER: Finally at 4 o'clock this afternoon, I got a flight finally here to Chicago. Now that I get here to Chicago, nobody is giving me information. I have no clue what time I'm taking off. It has just been hectic. I have never seen anything like this before.
GWEN IFILL: Late flights, cancellations and angry passengers have become part of the routine. And with low fares and a booming economy, more people are flying than ever.
PASSENGER: My own personal expectation is I expect there to be a delay. I don't expect them to be on time.
GWEN IFILL: Faced with mounting complaints from consumers and from Congress, the FAA joined with the airline industry last fall to devise a solution.
AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER: They are going to keep that ground stop in New York for another 15, 20 minutes.
GWEN IFILL: The plan: To centralize decision-making at this air traffic control center in Herndon, Virginia. The control center gained authority over regional airports to direct flights in bad weather. The FAA also agreed to reevaluate the use of so-called ground holds, which can strand passengers on taxiways for hours. But in spite of such changes, flying has only become more difficult this summer.
|A panel discussion|
GWEN IFILL: Why does air travel seem to keep getting worse? Joining me to discuss the frustrations of air travel this summer: Monte Belger, the acting deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration; John Meenan, senior vice president for industry policy at the Air Transport Association, a trade group representing the major U.S. airlines; Darryl Jenkins, a professor of airline economics and the director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University; and Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, an organization that focuses on safety, price and convenience for air travelers. Monte Belger, let's start with the FAA point of view. Can you give me some sort of sense about why this is happening.
MONTE BELGER, Federal Aviation Administration: Yes. First, thanks. I'm glad for the opportunity to answer those questions. I think the entire air transportation system is in somewhat of a crisis today. There are more passengers. There are more flights. And the system is reaching a point where we are reaching capacity at many airports. The plan we mentioned that was put together jointly by the FAA and the airlines for this year was designed to give better information to the airlines in terms of how the systems are being managed on a daily basis. It was designed for the airlines to be more of a part of the strategic decisions that are made on a daily basis by the FAA. I think that plan is working. But we're in a crisis. And it is time for the airports, the FAA, and the airlines to really work together to make sure we can get out of this crisis.
GWEN IFILL: Is it just bureaucratic incapacity to work together, or is it weather or is it -- too many people traveling? What are the real reasons?
MONTE BELGER: I think it is all three of those. June, for example, as was mentioned in the lead in was a difficult month for us from a weather standpoint. There were 19 bad weather days in June compared to five last year. There were 12 consecutive days where there were severe thunderstorms stretching from Canada to Texas. And when that happens in a system that's already at its capacity many times of the day at many airports, it really does put a strain. And we have to work together to build more airports. We have got to work together to build more runways and I believe the airlines have got to work together collaboratively to look at their scheduling practices. And the FAA has to continue the job we're doing to modernize the air traffic control system and give us better tools to manage the system during severe weather.
GWEN IFILL: John Meenan, from the point of view of the airline industry, what do you think the problem is here?
JOHN MEENAN, Air Transport Association: Gwen, what we're seeing today is the product of poor decisions that were made ten, 12 years ago. And what we're doing now is trying to work with the FAA to make sure that the decisions we're making now will take care of this problem in the future. Let me give you an example of what we think is happening. If you think of the air traffic control system, in terms of the interstate highway system in the United States, ten years ago, 20 years ago, we saw the traffic volume growing and the money was put into those interstate highways to build multi-lane, functional interstate links that really bind our country together. The air traffic control system still runs very much in the highway byway era where we route airplanes single file over fixed points on the ground. And when we run into difficult weather, which we know we're going to run into every year, the system simply breaks down. There is no reason that has to happen. The technology exists today for satellite-based navigation and we have got to move expeditiously to get that into place.
GWEN IFILL: So you're saying the system is not built to handle problems that we know are going to exist?
JOHN MEENAN: Absolutely. We've known the traffic volumes are going to be there. The FAA annually predicts what the rate of growth in the industry is going to be and they are quite good at it. We know too that on the part of the airlines, we need to do a better job in serving our customers. We're doing everything that we can within the control of the airlines to provide better service. Airlines are adding more space in airplanes, more overhead baggage compartments. Airlines are working with ground-based kiosk systems for checking in for your flight. We're working with mobile chariots to check people in in the event of an untoward situation when we have a crowd in the airport. Those are the things we can do and we know that we can do them better than we are now and we're getting better at it every day. But what we need is for the FAA to move expeditiously, as I say, to get that satellite-based technology into play.
GWEN IFILL: Darryl Jenkins, as long as we're spreading blame around, all of us have spent our fair amount of time in a middle seat in a long flight. How much of it has to do with the fact that so many more of us are traveling now?
DARRYL JENKINS, George Washington University: Well, that's certainly a part of it. The system is, in fact, maxed out. And when a thunderstorm comes in and there are delays, certainly the last thing you want to do is when there is a thunderstorm out there, you do not want to be up in a plane in the middle of it. Thunderstorms and planes do not go together. You have a thunderstorm go through like we had in June -- you want that plane safely on the ground. The problem is, like the day before the Fourth of July for Delta Airlines, that day they had 416,000 possible seats to sell, and they sold almost 408,000 of those. So if your flight is delayed, you have no alternatives to go on to another flight. And then when the flights are delayed, the planes are out of place and so the system backs up for days. And as you showed in your news clips here earlier, you have a lot of very frustrated, angry travelers.
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about the frustrated, angry travelers, Paul Hudson. We have a big crazy circle that's going on here. The FAA blames the weather. The airline industry blames the air traffic control. Other people blame the passengers. What's the problem?
PAUL HUDSON, Aviation Consumer Action Project: Well, the big three reasons are weather, equipment failure and labor disputes for delays. But they are not the underlying cause. The underlying cause that we feel has caused this big jump in delays especially over the last two years is we have a system with basically no reserves. There's less than 1 percent reserve in the system on any given day.
GWEN IFILL: What do you mean when you say reserve?
PAUL HUDSON: In terms of reserve planes, reserve crews, and airport space. We also have in the last five years, a highly concentrated air traffic at the top 20 airports. They now control more than half the traffic, and at certain times of the day, these airports are greatly overscheduled. Atlanta Hartsfield and Chicago O'Hare have chronic built-in delays even if the weather is perfect every day.
GWEN IFILL: You can just count on that no matter what?
PAUL HUDSON: Well, if you can take off 100 planes an hour and you schedule 200 planes an hour, you definitely have a problem. What we see is a requirement that needs to be put into place that you have to have appropriate reserve capacity in the system. Otherwise when the tiniest little glitch occurs or even when it doesn't occur, you are going to have massive delays. And the best recommendation we can give for consumers right now is when they make a reservation is to check the on-time statistic of the flight. They have that in the computer reservation system.
GWEN IFILL: And they'll tell you that?
PAUL HUDSON: They'll tell you that. And secondly, we think there should be a rule that if a flight is historically delayed more than 50% of the time, the airline should be required to tell you that.
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about the whole idea of having airline reserves, John Meenan. Is that practical?
JOHN MEENAN: Paul's suggestion that reserves are the problem is really misstating the situation. I mean, the fact is that lack of equipment accounts for-- in the low single digits for the causes of delays in cancellations. It simply isn't a major, major factor and adding unnecessary expense to the system will only drive up costs to the consumer. What we think needs to be done, as I say, is we need to get on with modernizing air traffic control system. We need more runway space in the country. We need to get together as a nation and decide how we are going to go about providing that capacity. But those are the areas where we know the difference will be made in terms of meeting the demands of the public. And that, after all, is what this is all about. We fly these planes because the public is there looking for the service that we provide. And we all need to get together to provide that service in the best possible manner.
GWEN IFILL: Monte Belger, the Federal Aviation Administration's chief concern here is safety. At what point do all of these delays, do all of this cross traffic, all of these miscues end up in a reduction of passenger safety?
MONTE BELGER: We're not going to let safety be compromised. That is our number one objective and will continue to be. As Darryl said, airplanes and thunderstorm don't mix, and we're not going to let that situation develop if we can avoid it at all. There is tremendous pressure sometimes to get that right balance between efficiency and on-time performance and safety. But we're going to come down on the side of safety, and that's not going to change. Let me just say a word about the modernization of the air traffic control system, which always come comes into this discussion. First I agree completely with John that satellite technology is the answer for the future. And I think we're developing it as quickly as can humanly be done. There are many, many technical and complex issues associated with using satellite technology for aircraft operations. But we in the airlines have been big supporters in going ahead quickly and developing that technology. In terms of modernizing the air traffic control system, it is somewhat frustrating to keep hearing about old equipment to me, when in fact, we have just completed a program to put in new computers in all of our en route centers. Every en route center has brand new computer processing capabilities. We have just completed a plan to put in new controller work stations in all of our centers, brand new equipment.
GWEN IFILL: Can I ask you then why the problem is worse this summer than last summer?
MONTE BELGER: If you look at the weather maps for June, it is very apparent. Those 19 severe days killed the operation. It has been described, it is an operation which is on the verge every day. The system works terrifically under good weather days. Good weather days, the system works like a charm. But it is at the point where the least little interruption, primarily caused by weather, really does cause some systemic problems. And we have to find the capability, and this is our challenge for the future to find the capability to manage the system in bad weather days close to as well as we do in good weather days.
GWEN IFILL: So, Darryl Jenkins, do we buy new planes? Build new airports? Tell everyone to stay home? What's the beginning of the solution here?
DARRYL JENKINS: Well, to buy a brand new narrow body plane costs $50 million and to have those just sitting on the ground waiting for delays is not a practical solution. If you were to do, that prices would go up quite a bit, and we don't want that to happen. The solution is, have John Meenan and Monte here in the same work working on ways to get us to the satellite base navigation systems. In the short run, I think what the FAA and airlines are doing is the correct solution where they are working on procedures. Now, understand as bad as June was, and it was the worst ever, it could have been worse. Jane Garvey put this plan in and started working on it last fall. If they had that in, you would have had even a worse June than we had; so that's the good news. The bad news is, for the next three to five years, we won't see too many improvements in capacity whatsoever. So every June, when thunderstorms roll in, we will see more and more delays.
|Will it get worse before it gets better?|
GWEN IFILL: Paul Hudson, it gets worse before it gets better? It never gets better?
PAUL HUDSON: I have to disagree. Think I think the government and the airline's bag of tricks is about empty and it is time to try some other things. The main strategy in the 1990s for increasing capacity was to use larger planes. But the airlines decided about halfway through that they wanted to go with smaller planes. So we now have more and more small flights, with under 200 passengers. And we have replaced a lot of the large wide body jets. We also have a new type of plane coming on called regional jets which carries 30-60 people, instead of 100-plus for traditional airliners. Some of the airlines have labor contracts that restricts those things down to a very small part of the system. We still have 85 percent of the air space in the United States that's relatively empty. We need to spread things out both in terms of time and in terms of space, in the short term. We don't need to have a crisis.
GWEN IFILL: A chance to be respond, Mr. Meenan?
JOHN MEENAN: I think what we need to do is look at the management structure of the FAA and make sure we have streamlined that and provided for the accountability so we know the decisions are being played and carried out effectively. We need to get on with things like resign designing the air space to allow it to run more efficiently and cleaning up the choke points out there today. We need to get on with, as I say, moving into the satellite technologies. And we need to look to the way we provide weather reports to the FAA. Right now, those weather reports are not provided as regularly and effectively as they might be. All of those things could make a big difference in coping with the weather, and that's really what this is all about. We're not interested in, as I say, flying into thunderstorms. But there are lots of ways around those storms and we have to be able to take better advantage of those opportunities when they exist.
GWEN IFILL: Briefly, will we see the passenger bill of rights that was headed off last fall? Are we going to finally see that enacted by Congress as a response to this?
MONTE BELGER: I think that's a question John needs to answer. I hope the airlines do come through and come through with what they promised. Part of this equation, in addition to the delays, is the ability of the passengers to get accurate, up-to-date information about what's happening with their flights. And that's a problem that we have today.
GWEN IFILL: Well, I'm flying this weekend. I can't wait. Thank you all very much for joining us today.
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