The Brancatelli File



August 5, 2004 -- Here are two facts about O'Hare that the airlines choking the airport with new flights would prefer you didn't know: Passenger traffic in Chicago is growing at a snail's pace and the actual number of travelers per flight is falling.

According to the most recent statistics released by the Chicago Department of Aviation, 7,061,930 passengers used O'Hare in June. That's just 5.1 percent more than the 6,717,504 flyers who used the airport in June, 2000. The average flight at ORD in June carried just 89 passengers, down from an average load of 97 passengers in June, 2000.

So if the number of passengers using the nation's most important and most crowded airport is growing so slowly, how come flight delays are skyrocketing? How come about one in three flights arrived late at O'Hare in June? How come O'Hare is a black hole for business travelers again?

Because, as usual, the airline industry is clogging the runways at O'Hare with wave after wave of regional-jet flights that are making a mockery of their published schedules and wreaking havoc with our business-travel lives.

In the face of that modest, 5.1 percent four-year growth in passengers, the airlines operated 12.4 percent more flights this past June than in June, 2000. Commuter flights at O'Hare--usually hideously inefficient, tarmac-hogging, skylane-chomping regional jets--have jumped 30.8 percent in the same four-year period. About 40 percent of the flights at O'Hare are now flown with 50-seat regional jets, consuming as much runway and gate space as traditional jets that can accommodate 120, 150 or even 200 or more passengers.

Now it's easy to blame O'Hare's two hubbing incumbents--bankrupt, profligate United and holier-than-thou American--for this delay crisis. They control more than 80 percent of the traffic at ORD. And they think nothing of scheduling like alcoholics during Happy Hour if it suits their purposes. After all, only a punch-drunk Big Six executive could decide that United needs to operate three flights to Denver between 11:05 and 11:55 every morning.

But United and American are not alone. When the FAA ordered two slap-on-the-wrist flight cuts at O'Hare earlier this year, United and American smirked and complied, but carriers like Continental quickly increased their ORD schedules. And even newbies like Independence Air, United's former commuter carrier, deserve some of the rap. Independence has launched a dozen RJ flights from Washington/Dulles to O'Hare in the past 45 days. With Independence's passenger loads hovering around 50 percent, that's 12 daily flights carrying a total of perhaps 300 people. They could all fit comfortably on two Airbus A320 flights.

Nor is this crisis at O'Hare completely new. Business travelers have been struggling with the airlines' piggish use of the public skyways and ORD's infrastructure for years. As usual, bankrupt United has been the most brazen. A 2001 Brancatelli File called Chutzpah explains in nauseating detail how United increased flights on some routes at O'Hare by 36 percent even while it was cutting total passenger capacity by 39 percent, complaining that the routes were unprofitable and demanding that taxpayers pour more concrete at Chicago.

Of course, all this airline absurdity falls under the regulatory brief of the DOT and the Federal Aviation Administration. They have the power to curb the airlines' behavior and make sure that carriers don't schedule more flights than an airport can handle. And it's not like ORD's capacity is a secret. The FAA long ago showed that O'Hare's maximum capacity under optimum weather conditions is about 88 flights an hour and no more than 22 flights in any 15-minute period.

But the airlines are already scheduling as many as 100 flights an hour during peak periods at O'Hare. That number will rise as high as 130 flights an hour in November if they are allowed to stick to their published fall schedules. And other than this week's sound-bite bellow from DOT Secretary Norman Mineta ("We are going to do something about this problem right here and now") and a toothless scheduling summit that is dragging on behind closed doors in Washington, the government regulators have done nothing.

Enough. None of us expect the airlines to voluntarily schedule only the flights they can actually fly on-time. No one expects any airline to voluntarily fly a 200-seat jet when it can recklessly schedule four 50-seat jets and claim to be offering passengers more choice. The airlines act like barbarians at the boarding gate because that's what they do. We expect them to lie, cheat, infuriate passengers with flight delays and cost their stockholders millions of dollars as high-priced iron sits on the ground racking up delays.

The only solution to the O'Hare problem is for the government regulators to regulate. An enlightened policy would be to limit the number of RJs clogging the runways at ORD and require the airlines to fly fewer, larger jets. But for a variety of good and bad reasons, that isn't likely to happen.

What can be done, however, is what the DOT did when the airlines scheduled New York's LaGuardia Airport into delay hell: Reimpose slot controls and conduct a slot lottery for the existing resources. The delays in New York literally disappeared overnight when the DOT acted. And even though the government has backslid in recent months, LGA still runs at a reasonable on-time rate of 74.2 percent.

O'Hare can handle 88 flights an hour. That's all. The airlines may be trying to contradict the laws of finance with their endless quarterly losses, but the laws of physics are much less flexible. Eighty-eight flights is 88 flights. Anything more and O'Hare's operations grind to a halt and the airport's delays ripple throughout the nation.

If the government tells the airlines that they can't schedule more than 88 flights an hour, the delay problem will go away at O'Hare.

This column originally appeared at

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