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 The Brancatelli File

joe IN HELL
AT HARTSFIELD


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

February 17, 1998 -- It was 1982 when I learned the gospel of frequent flying in the South.

Wrapping up a gig in Birmingham, Alabama, I was sent to a paper mill in Mobile, Alabama. I raced to the airport, deposited myself at the ticket counter and said, "Get me to Mobile."

Within minutes I was on a flight--to Atlanta, Georgia. After changing planes at Hartsfield International, I flew back to Alabama, landed in Mobile and drove to the mill.

"How y'all doing today?" asked the plant manager. "Have a good flight?"

"No, I didn't," I barked. "Damn ticket agent in Birmingham must of thought it was hilarious to send a New Yorker to Mobile via Georgia. Can you imagine making me change planes in Atlanta to get here?"

The plant manager looked me straight in the eye. "Boy," he said, "in these parts, we got a saying: If you're going to hell, you change planes in Atlanta."

Times have changed. You no longer change planes in Atlanta to go to hell.

These days, Hartsfield International is hell.

As any traveler who uses Atlanta knows, Hartsfield has the worst on-time record of any major airport in America. It's worse than perennially fog-bound San Francisco. Worse than Logan in Boston. It's even worse than the terrible trio of delay-makers that New Yorkers endure.

As you can see by the accompanying charts, Hartsfield has been in a tailspin for months. In January, 1997, Atlanta placed in the middle of the pack of the nation's 27 largest airports. Its arrivals and departures percentages were slightly above the 27-airport averages compiled by the Department of Transportation.

During each of the next 11 months, however, Hartsfield fell far below the 27-airport average for on-time arrivals and always placed 24th or lower. In five separate months, it ranked dead last for on-time arrivals. Its departures record was almost as dreary.

Hartsfield's on-time performance isn't just generically bad, it is specifically awful. Every month, DOT publishes a list of flights that arrive late at least 80 percent of the time. From February through December, 1997, DOT put 204 flights on that list of shame. Eighty-nine--or 44 percent of the nationwide total--originated in or landed at Atlanta.

What's wrong at Hartsfield? Let's start with the airport's officials, who are so oblivious to reality that they claim to be unaware of the delays.

"This is the first I've heard about a problem," Hartsfield spokesperson April Majors told me last week. "Hartsfield is considered the most efficiently run airport in the world."

Since all four of Hartsfield's runways were functioning, Majors concluded, "if there is an on-time problem, it's not our fault. You should check with the airlines."

Checking with the airlines starts--and pretty much ends--with Delta Air Lines. Operating more than 600 daily flights at Hartsfield, Delta controls about 80 percent of Atlanta's traffic.

After months of denials, Delta executives begrudgingly admit to a problem at Hartsfield. But they won't speak for the record, won't discuss a task force they say they've created to address the problem and don't seem particularly embarrassed by conditions at their primary hub.

Part of Delta's problems at Hartsfield is staffing. A company-wide cost-cutting program in recent years slashed the number of ground employees. "We staffed for about 60 percent load factors," one Delta executive admitted. "That's disastrous when you're getting 70, 75 percent loads."

It would also explain why Delta doesn't board even heavily booked flights until a few minutes before departures. There are no staffers available to work the gates earlier. At boarding time, "chaos reigns," complains Suzy Besson-Martilotta, a frequent Delta flyer. "They don't learn from their mistakes and we always leave late from the gate."

Late departures from the gate mean that arriving flights are delayed, too. "That's the most frustrating part," says a frequent-flying Atlanta executive who requests anonymity. "Even when we land on time in Atlanta, we sit around 15 or 20 minutes before we pull up to a gate."

Delta's size is also problematic. Its 600 Hartsfield flights are spread over five separate concourses, making connections tortuous and time-consuming.

"When banks of flights arrive, it's like the school bell has rung and all the kids are out in the hall between classes. It's a madhouse," explains travel consultant Chris McGinnis, who has criticized Delta's on-time performance in his column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and in The Ticket, his monthly newsletter for Atlanta travelers.

Hartsfield also suffers from political and logistical problems. Unlike some of the nation's other busiest airports, Hartsfield isn't slot controlled. Airlines can add flights without regard for whether there is space to accommodate them. Worse, commuter airlines and jet carriers share Hartsfield's four runways, an inefficient system that slows both takeoffs and landings.

Ironically, the delays occur despite a schedule that has already been stretched and padded by about 13 percent to accommodate them.

Aviation consultant Mort Beyer recently compared the scheduled travel time of today's Delta flights into Atlanta to those operated 20 years ago. On identical flight segments, Beyer found, the average flight time to Hartsfield is 102 minutes now, up from 90 minutes in 1977.

So, add it up. Flights that are scheduled to take 13 percent longer than they did 20 years ago still arrive late at Hartsfield thirty or forty percent of the time.

That, my friends, is frequent-flying hell.

PERCENTAGE OF FLIGHTS DEPARTING ON TIME IN 1997*

 

DEC

NOV

OCT

SEP

AUG

JUL

JUN

MAY

APR

MAR

FEB

JAN

27 AIRPORTS

73.6

78.1

81.4

84.8

78.2

77.0

75.6

82.7

79.4

77.9

74.9

67.9

ATLANTA

68.9

67.8

74.1

76.6

72.9

66.7

62.8

68.5

72.6

75.3

66.6

68.5

ATLANTA RANKS

25th

27th

25th

26th

24th

27th

27th

27th

26th

21st

27th

13th

                         

PERCENTAGE OF FLIGHTS ARRIVING ON TIME IN 1997*

27 AIRPORTS

77.8

82.6

85.1

87.9

81.3

80.7

79.8

86.2

82.8

80.7

79.8

72.3

ATLANTA

77.3

77.7

83.0

85.6

81.6

73.9

70.9

76.1

77.0

78.0

72.7

75.2

ATLANTA RANKS

17th

26th

21st

23rd

15th

27th

27th

27th

27th

23rd

26th

12th

* The average on-time performance of the 10 major carriers at the 27 largest U.S. airports. Figures include domestic scheduled service only. Source: U.S. Department of Transportation Air Travel Consumer Reports


This column originally appeared at TheTrip.com.

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