Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Had a flight delayed last year? You aren’t alone.

About one in four domestic flights were delayed last year, the second-worst rate on the 12-year record, the Department of Transportation said yesterday.

Flights were delayed more than 26 percent of the time in 2007. That was slightly better than 2000, when planes were late 27.4 percent of the time, the worst on record.

The delays were attributed to aircraft arriving late, aviation system delays, maintenance or crew problems, and weather.

The rate of lost bags rose as well. Airlines tracked about seven reports of mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers, up from 6.73 in 2006.

Consumers have become more vocal about their issues with airlines, too. Consumers filed 13,168 airline service complaints with the Department of Transportation last year, up 52 percent from 8,325 in 2005.

The numbers are “very disappointing, but reflect the fact that we have an antiquated air traffic control system and we’re operating at the maximum here,” said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a Washington passenger rights organization.

It’s the latest in a laundry list of troubles for the airline industry, which is facing rising fuel costs and new competition from low-cost rivals. Still, demand remains high.

Just Monday, UAL Corp.’s United Airlines said it was charging $25 to check a second bag on most domestic flights, a move analysts say could be copied by other airlines.

The Federal Aviation Administration has made some changes to try to curtail delays.

The Department of Transportation has already ordered John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to limit the number of flights throughout the day. A similar order may be issued to Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, an FAA spokeswoman said.

The idea is that easing congestion at those airports will have a ripple effect across the country.

The department has also told congested airports that they can charge fees to land, based on the time flights land to encourage airlines to spread their flights more evenly throughout the day.

As a long-term fix, the FAA has embarked on a plan to convert the country’s flight system from radar to speedier satellite and Global Positioning System tracking, called NextGen.

The system’s infrastructure is slated to be built by 2016, and airplanes have to have the technology by 2020.

On Monday, Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said President Bush’s 2009 budget would double the NextGen investment to $688 million.

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