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 The Brancatelli File

joe THE FACTS AND FIGURES
ABOUT FLIGHT DELAYS


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

March 15, 2001 -- Before we even discuss the current epidemic of flight delays, we need to remember one thing: The major U.S. airlines have been lying about this crisis for years.

Remember when they insisted delays were caused by passengers arriving late to the airport? So they decreed we would henceforth arrive twice as early--one hour for domestic flights and two hours for international departures--than ever before. We trouped to the airport double time and delays got worse.

Then the airlines claimed delays were rising because we were inconsiderate louts who couldn't get to the gate on time. So they decreed we would henceforth be prepared to board 20 minutes before departure, not 10 minutes. We arrived at the gate twice as early as ever before and delays still got worse.

Then several major carriers concocted the absurd theory that delays were caused by bin-hogging travelers carrying on too much luggage. So they created sizing templates. We subjected ourselves to a humiliating new pre-boarding ritual and delays worsened.

Now, on a good day, the airlines operate one in four flights late and they have found themselves a new scapegoat: The American Public. The American Public, airline executives say with amazingly straight faces, have not spent enough tax dollars on new runways, haven't squandered enough tax dollars on new airports and haven't gold-plated the nation's air-traffic control system.

I am tempted to cry Baloney! at the top of my lungs--except for the fact that there is a nugget or two of truth buried under all the airline bluster. We could use a few more runways in this country. Another airport or two might be useful. And everyone agrees that the government-run air-traffic system would benefit from a major overhaul.

But the primary cause of flight delays in this country has nothing to do with our collective distaste for plowing billions into more infrastructure. Right now, today, at this very moment, flight delays are caused by airlines themselves. They have scheduled wave after wave of new flights and stressed the existing system to the breaking point.

Take a look at this chart comparing the nation's busiest and most important route--Los Angeles International to New York/Kennedy--today and in August, 1978, at the dawn of the deregulated era. Even the quickest perusal reveals a startling trend.

TWICE THE FLIGHTS, BUT FEWER SEATS*

Airline

Nonstops

Total Seats

Equipment Used

 

1978

2001

1978

2001

1978

2001

American Airlines

5

11

2,090

1,892

747/DC-10

767

Delta Air Lines

0

4

0

1,008

na

767

TWA

5

4

1,589

773

L1011/707

757/767

United Airlines

3

8

1,356

1,344

747

767

Industry Totals

13

27

5,035

5,017

 

INCREASE/LOSS

 

107%

 

-.3%

*Between Los Angeles International and New York/Kennedy airports. Source:Official Airlines Guide

Over the last 23 years, major carriers have more than doubled the number of daily nonstop flights they operate on the nation's busiest route. Yet total daily seat capacity has remained essentially the same. In other words, airlines now clog the skies between Los Angeles and New York with twice the number of flights, but they offer no more seats than they did in 1978.

That, fellow flyers, is the cause of the nation's flight-delay crisis. Too many flights. Or, more specifically, too many small planes flying too many flights.

Look at that chart again. Two decades ago, airlines were flying Boeing 747s capable of carrying 450 passengers and L-1011s that could haul 360 travelers. They have replaced those behemoths with 757s and 767s that carry as few as 172 passengers. The chart lines for United and American are particularly interesting. In 1978, United ran three daily 747 flights with a total seat capacity of 1,356 people. Today, United flies more than twice the number of flights, yet its total seat capacity has actually declined. Meanwhile, American has more than doubled its daily LAX-JFK schedule, but a shift to smaller 767s means fewer seats than in 1978.

This pattern is repeated on many routes between the nation's busiest and most congested airports. Airlines have increased their number of daily flights dramatically, but substituted smaller and smaller equipment along the way. A swarm of 50-seat regional jets may now fly where two or three daily 737s once flew. Two or three daily widebody flights have been replaced by six or eight 737 flights.

In fairness to the airlines, there is a method to their scheduling madness. The older, larger planes of two decades ago gulped fuel at a horrific rate and required three-person cockpits. The newer, smaller planes are more fuel efficient and can be flown by a crew of two. Besides, the airlines argue, frequent flyers love frequent flights. A dozen flights a day on a route is more convenient than six. It's not so much the total number of seats you offer in a market, airlines explain, it's the frequency with which you can offer seats. If you get them talking off the record, airline executives will say something else, too. Flooding a market with frequent flights is a great way to drive a competitor off a route.

Of course, there are just two flies in this unctuous airline ointment. First, a dozen flights a day using smaller jets isn't more convenient when all twelve of the flights run late. Second, the nation's aviation infrastructure can't handle the extra flights. There aren't enough runways and air space and air-traffic controllers and the airlines knew that when they mothballed their jumbo jets and replaced them with their pint-sized pretenders.

At every turn since the dawn of deregulation, the airlines have lied to us, insulted our intelligence, humiliated us with Byzantine fares and abysmal service and squandered the nation's aviation infrastructure. Now they want tens of billions in tax dollars spent on new airports and new runways so they can continue to fly whatever planes they want whenever they want to schedule them.

I'm comfortable saying "no" to that proposition. How 'bout you?

This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.