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THE COLOR OF THE SKY AT THE DOT
By Joe Brancatelli
December 6, 2007 -- If you listen to the bleatings from the Department of Transportation (DOT), Secretary Mary Peters and the agency have solved the problem of chronically delayed flights.

Consider this bit of bloviating from a DOT announcement on Monday: Airlines have taken steps to fix chronically delayed flights, including changing flight routes, adding flight crews and making additional aircraft available as the result of a recent federal enforcement effort designed to reduce the number of chronically delayed flights plaguing travelers, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters announced today. Most importantly, the Secretary said, the airlines involved in the investigation have acted to end chronic delays for the flights identified by the Department of Transportation as part of the investigation.

According to the DOT announcement, the DOT "identified 183 flights that were chronically delayed during the first quarter, and in May advised the 15 airlines that operated those delayed flights that they needed to take corrective action. In July, after the end of the second quarter, the six airlines operating 25 flights that were chronically delayed for two consecutive quarters were notified that if they failed to address these flights by the following quarter, they would face financial penalties of up to $25,000 per violation."

As a result of this DOT activity, Peters claimed, "by the end of September none of the chronically delayed flights from the first two quarters were chronically delayed in the third quarter. In addition, the investigation found that airlines are now monitoring chronically delayed flights more closely, and are taking a number of steps to correct chronically delayed flights."

I hate to fall back on one of the great put-downs of all time, but if the metaphorical shoe fits: What color is the sky in Mary Peters' world?

You and I know planes run late, chronically late, all of the time, and very little has improved lately. And if the DOT says that it has fixed the problem, you know something is very badly amiss with the DOT's thinking.

So I dug out the DOT's Air Travel Consumer Report for the first three months of the year and literally stuck some pins into the sections marked "List of Regularly Scheduled Flights Arriving Late 80% of the Time or More."

My first pin stuck into American Airlines Flight 1659, which plodded its merry way from Newark to Chicago/O'Hare earlier this year. In January, according to the DOT, the 6:45 p.m. flight was late 85 percent of the time. The average delay was 77 minutes. In February, Flight 1659 was late 87 percent of the time and the average delay was 66 minutes. In March, the EWR-ORD flight was late 84 percent of the time. The average delay was an appalling 107 minutes.

So how did this chronically delayed flight get fixed? American Airlines Flight 1659 between Newark and O'Hare no longer exists. There's no 6:45 p.m. flight, either. But American does have a 6:35 p.m. departure and it is listed as Flight 1271. How's Flight 1271 doing? According to FlightStats.com, it's been running 27 percent on-time lately and the average delay is 45 minutes.

Then I checked United Flight 1199, mostly because it was the worst-delayed Big Six flight in January and that put it at the top of the DOT's monthly chronically delayed list. Back in January, Flight 1199 was scheduled for a 5:15 p.m. departure from Washington/Dulles to Tucson, Arizona. It was delayed all 30 times it flew in January and the average delay was 50 minutes.

How was this flight fixed? United doesn't fly it anymore.

Beginning to see a pattern? Okay, let's try US Airways Flight 1760. In February, according to DOT figures, Flight 1760 flew 24 times between Newark and Charlotte. The 6:30 p.m. departure ran late 23 times and the average delay was 50 minutes. In March, Flight 1760 ran 26 times and operated late 21 times. The average delay ballooned to 64 minutes.

How's Flight 1760 doing now? You guessed it. There is no Flight 1760, at least not between Newark and Charlotte. These days, Flight 1760 is a flight between Las Vegas and Charlotte.

But there is now a US Airways Flight 1895 that is scheduled to fly between Newark and Charlotte at 6:25 p.m. How's Flight 1895 performing? According to FlightStats.com, Flight 1895 has operated 62 percent on-time during the last 60 days. The average delay is 37 minutes.

Let's do just one more. How about United Flight 1460? In February and March, it operated on the O'Hare to Miami route with a scheduled departure time of 8 p.m. In both months, the daily flight ran late about 85 percent of the time and the average delay was north of 50 minutes.

But what has United Flight 1460 done for us lately? Uh, well, does it really surprise you to learn that Flight 1460 no longer operates between O'Hare and Miami? Nor does United operate a flight at 8 p.m. on the route.

Okay, then, I think we're done here. Have a good, on-time flight tomorrow. All's fine in the skies. The DOT and Mary Peters are on the case for us.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.