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 The Brancatelli File

joe A SUMMER OF HORROR
AT THE NATION'S AIRPORTS


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

May 20, 2004 -- I find a modicum of black humor in all the recent punditry suggesting we're headed for the worst summer travel season since the now-legendary summer of 2000. Why? Most of those self-same pundits were busy denying there was any trouble during the summer of 2000.

You remember the summer of 2000, don't you? United Airlines was melting down, some weeks operating 75 percent of its flights late, some weeks canceling 10 percent of its flights and stranding passengers around the world. The other airlines were overloading airports like Dallas/Fort Worth and New York/La Guardia with as many as 50 percent more flights per hour than the facilities could handle, then blaming air-traffic control or the lack of runways for the atrocious delays.

I don't know if this summer will be as bad as that summer of our discontent, but the signs are disturbing. Passenger traffic is up and may reach its pre-2001 peak. Airlines are clogging up airports with regional jets that carry 50 people at a time but use all the air space, air-traffic control capacity and airport gate room of 150-seat jets. And then there's the Transportation Security Administration. It's inflexible and uncreative--and dogged by Congressional critics who simultaneously complain about long lines at security checkpoints while demanding the agency cut its roster of screeners by more than 15,000 bodies.

So what's it all mean? Frankly, I just don't know. We really could have a summer of horror at the airports. Or, put off by security concerns and bad publicity, vacation travelers could stay away from the airports. They might just get in their cars and overpay for gasoline or simply sit in their backyard and barbecue.

Still, it's better to prepare for the worst. Here's an admittedly arbitrary look at some airports that may be black holes this summer and what, if anything, you can do about it.

ATLANTA It's been ugly lately at Hartsfield where passengers have waited as long as 90 minutes to clear security. Half-mile lines snaked around the terminals, out the door and onto the sidewalks. But here's where the politics of security has reared its extremely ugly head. As Congressional mandates have forced TSA to pare its workforce, the headcount of screeners at Hartsfield has dropped to 1,023 compared to 1,335 in the fall of 2002. TSA says it will add 59 screeners by the summer, but that sure sounds like a drop in the security bucket. Worst time to fly: early Monday morning, when security lines are longest.

CLEVELAND Hopkins International will lose 26 of its 371 screeners this summer, so beware of increasing security delays, especially for early-morning weekday flights and on Sundays, when the regional tourists headed home merge with the Sunday-night business flyers.

CHICAGO Welcome to O'Hare, the nexus of all bad vibes for business travelers. Thanks to completely irresponsible scheduling by United and American, who control 80 percent of O'Hare's traffic, the airport recorded a horrendous on-time rating of 62.2 percent in March. That's almost 19 percent below the 31-airport national average of 81 percent. The Federal Aviation Authority has twice ordered the carriers to slash their peak-period flights, but the delays continue. And you might as well abandon all hope for an on-time arrival between 5 and 9 p.m. The airport's rating during that four-hour window ranges from 41.9 to 49.7 percent.

FORT LAUDERDALE Sunday and Monday mornings tend to be a nightmare at the security checkpoints as cruise-ship passengers arrive for their flights home. Avoid at all costs.

HAWAII According to TSA statistics--which aren't necessarily reliable--Honolulu had the longest average security wait time (39 minutes) last summer among the nation's largest airports. But Kona and Maui airports are also problematic, especially since the airports' physical layouts aren't conducive to long lines. And there's probably no "good" time to avoid lines because locals use the airports all day for inter-island flights. Worse, the airlines are ramping up a slew of new flights to Hawaii this summer, so small increases in the number of screeners are not likely to help.

JACKSONVILLE Maybe you shouldn't plan a vacation to Amelia Island or anywhere else in North Florida this summer. Jacksonville will be losing 27 screeners, about 15 percent of its current complement.

LAS VEGAS Delays at McCarran International have sometimes reached five hours as gamblers, vacationers and convention-goers all converge on security checkpoints at the same time. Although this is an anecdotal observation, Thursdays and Fridays between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. seem to be the worst times. An increase of 35 screeners this summer isn't likely to fix any of the problems. The best decision you can make: Defer all discretionary travel to Las Vegas this summer.

LOS ANGELES The sprawl at LAX doesn't hide the bitter reality: One-hour security waits are the rule, not the exception.

NEWARK Dreadful on-time performance plagues the airport around the clock (only 70.5 percent of flights arrived on-time in March). The airport isn't quite as awful if you can get in before 2 p.m. But only the desperate take flights arriving after 6 p.m., when on-time operations plunge into the 42 percent range. The security situation is worst at Terminal C, the home of Continental's huge hub. The arrival of about 300 additional screeners in the next few weeks may not offset the general unpleasantness.

NEW YORK Relatively speaking, LaGuardia is running a bit better (74.1 percent on-time in March) compared to its worst recent moments. Kennedy Airport is also working more smoothly now that the bulk of the construction delays are in the past. (American Airlines' terminal is still a bit of a physical challenge, however.) And, surprisingly, security screening hasn't been a major issue in recent months. But all that can change in the proverbial New York minute, especially if the expected boom in international travel materializes at JFK this summer.

ORANGE COUNTY The big security snafus are usually in the morning, before 10 a.m. Fly later in the day or be prepared for 60-90 minute waits at the security checkpoints.

ORLANDO The security checkpoints at Orlando International experience three peak periods, local experts say. The business travelers clog the lines in the morning between 6 and 8 a.m. Vacationers swamp the checkpoints at lunchtime and in the late afternoon. Sundays are bad throughout the day. It's saner--if such a modifier can be applied to Orlando--at other times. Meanwhile, nearby Sanford Airport is losing almost 20 percent of its 103 screeners this summer, so you probably don't want to be flying from there.

PIEDMONT TRIAD The North Carolina airport serving Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem is losing more than 25 percent of its 162 security screeners this summer. I can't spin any scenario where that's good news.

PHILADELPHIA Terminal C, the home of US Airways' hub, is often overloaded at the security checkpoints. Locals often clear security at Terminal A or D and walk to their departure gate in Terminal C.

PITTSBURGH Security staffing goeth before the hub, apparently. US Airways' decision to reduce service at Pittsburgh later this year is being presaged by TSA's decision to pull 45 screeners out of the airport in the next few weeks. It could get ugly this summer.

SEATTLE-TACOMA How bad is the security situation at SeaTac Airport? The TSA fired all four of the airport's top security officials earlier this month. The consistent problem? Clearing security takes up to two hours whenever a cruise ship disgorges its passengers and they rush to the airport to catch a flight home. Worst time to travel: early mornings. Take afternoon or evening flights if you can.

WASHINGTON/DULLES Here's my personal choice for chaotic airport of the summer. Atlantic Coast, which has been the United Express carrier at United's Dulles hub, strikes out on its own next month as low-fare Independence Air. It hopes to grow to 300 daily flights by the end of the summer. Meanwhile, United will be trying to manage a half-dozen commuter-carrier replacements, keep its own Dulles schedule intact and open a new terminal. Sanity would seem to demand you avoid Dulles at all costs this summer. Use Washington/National or Baltimore/Washington instead.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com

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