- The Washington Times - Monday, December 19, 2005

Cancellationsby airlines aremost since 9/11

On the morning of Dec. 14, travelers in sunny Denver who were ticketed to Dallas were stranded by a snowstorm a time zone away in Chicago.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered airlines to delay some flights bound for Chicago O’Hare International Airport because of the storm. United Airlines canceled Flight 758 from Denver to Dallas because the plane was supposed to fly later to Chicago, and the carrier did not want the jet taking up gate space waiting in Dallas, spokeswoman Robin Urbanski says.

Scrubbed flights, in good and bad weather, are occurring more frequently amid the Christmas peak. Cancellations are rising for a third straight year because carriers moving record passenger loads have fewer planes and workers to handle malfunctions or to stay aloft when flight paths are disrupted, even by distant squalls. With cancellations at their highest since the September 11, 2001, attacks, traveler complaints are rising, too.

“Prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” says David Stempler, president of the Potomac-based Air Travelers Association, a consumer group.

Cancellations reached 1.96 percent of all U.S. flights by major and regional carriers in the first 10 months of the year, the highest since 4.34 percent for the same period in 2001, the latest U.S. government data show.

For the 27 months starting in June 2003, when the government expanded data collection, five of the top six airlines for cancellations were regional carriers, which typically fly planes with fewer than 75 seats, led by Delta Air Lines Inc.’s Comair unit and SkyWest Inc.’s Atlantic Southeast Airlines. The most-delayed major carrier, ranked fifth, was Alaska Airlines, operated by Seattle-based Alaska Air Group Inc.

Regional flights most often are canceled because the carriers use remote airports lacking gear and staff for fast repairs, says Andrew Meister, an analyst in Appleton, Wis., for Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, a money-management company.

Major airlines usually will disrupt a regional carrier with fewer passengers to give priority for equipment and landing slots to the bigger planes in the case of malfunctions or storms, says Rick Maloney, dean of the College of Aviation at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

The fate of airlines — and their passengers — often is decided in a dimly lit room in Herndon, where about 35 FAA workers sit at consoles with telephones and computer displays. Eleven screens along the front wall blink with flight data, including a map of the United States showing the position of every commercial plane in the air at a particular moment.

The FAA uses the data to decide whether to limit landings at airports affected by storms or traffic congestion, letting the airlines determine which flights they will cancel or delay.

On Oct. 11, computer screens at the command center showed rain along the East Coast. Low clouds and equipment malfunctions were the subject of a 9:15 a.m. conference call with airlines led by FAA national traffic-management officer Thomas Paccione. He limited the number of arriving flights per hour in Boston and at New York’s John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports and at New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport.

The limit prompted airlines to decide which flights to delay, cancel or reroute to other airports, clearing flight paths already congested with planes flying different routes to avoid bad weather.

At Newark, starting at noon, the FAA would let 36 flights arrive each hour, down from the typical number of about 45.

“Questions?” Mr. Paccione, 48, asked about 50 people on the conference call. “Continental, any comments?”

Continental’s representative asked whether the Newark delays could be arranged so that flights would be slowed by 63 minutes on average, rather than the 78 minutes that would result from a proposal under consideration.

Mr. Paccione agreed. Houston-based Continental, which has a hub at Newark, completed only 40 percent of its flights on time at the airport that day, says Julie King, an airline spokeswoman. Three Newark flights were canceled, and Continental’s on-time rate that day was 72.4 percent across its entire system, she says.

The cancellations are taking a toll on passengers. Consumer complaints arising from cancellations soared 52 percent in the period of January to October this year from that period last year, the biggest percentage increase since 1999, Department of Transportation data show.

For the 27 months beginning in June 2003, airline mechanical malfunctions or crews arriving late caused 45 percent of cancellations, while storms led to 35 percent and traffic congestion or other system flaws were responsible for 20 percent, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data generated for Bloomberg News.

The two most-common reasons for airline-caused cancellations — mechanical malfunctions and a lack of crew or equipment — may result from the failure of cash-strapped airlines to come up with employees to cover for ill colleagues and other shortcomings, says Clay Foushee, president of Farragut International LLC, a Washington-based aviation consulting firm. Those disruptions are more likely to affect regional carriers.

“The smaller it is, the more susceptible it is to disruption,” Mr. Foushee says.

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