Is the FAA losing battle of flight delay hell?

The Federal Aviation Administration continues to do battle with but one of the scourges of commercial travel - flight delays. While the agency has big plans for 2008, problems persist.

Currently the battle is a good news-bad news situation: in the midst of the second-worst year for flight delays, the FAA today said software designed to improve air traffic flow and reduce delays saved $27 million for the airlines and 1.1 million delay minutes for the flying public in its first year of operation.

Still, domestic flight delays cost the industry and passengers $40.7 billion in 2007, according to the Joint Economic Committee, which released a report today. The report said passengers lost an estimated $12 billion worth of time that would otherwise have been spent on business or other endeavors. The delays cost airlines $19.1 billion in extra staffing, fuel and maintenance costs, including $1.6 billion in fuel costs.

Things are bound to get worse as 1 billion people are expected to fly in by 2016 up from 765 million passengers in 2007. Bad weather causes 70% of all delays, the FAA says. And the situation is worse during the summer: unlike winter storms, which take time to develop and move slowly, summer storms can form quickly, stretch for hundreds of miles and travel rapidly over large portions of the country, grounding flights and sending chain reaction delays throughout the nation's airspace system, the FAA says.

But the FAA still has battle plans for 2008 and they include the following:

* Western Atlantic RouteSystem: This initiative will increase capacity along the East Coast over the Atlantic this summer by reducing lateral separation from 90 miles to 50 miles for aircraft with avionics that provide an appropriate level of accuracy. The area includes parts of Miami and New York high altitude airspace, as well as the San Juan Center Radar Approach Control airspace. In the past, lateral separation in oceanic airspace has been set at 90 miles between aircraft to maintain safe separation. This initiative takes advantage of more precise aircraft position technology to allow for more Atlantic routes, 20 more transition route fixes and ultimately more access to the available airspace. The FAA said the new procedures are scheduled to be fully operational on June 5, 2008.

* New Playbook Routes: New playbook routes will be in place this summer to provide alternate route options during periods of severe weather. Playbook routes are pre-coordinated routes that are developed to route aircraft around convective weather. Nineteen new playbook routes will be available, including four Virginia Capes Area routes designed for use in military airspace when it is available. The FAA said the Department of Defense is making four routes available off the eastern seaboard for commercial airline flights this Memorial Day weekend starting at 6 p.m. EDT on Friday, May 23rd. The space will be available continuously until 7 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, May 27th. The FAA has used these routes for last year's Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons.

* Integrated Collaborative Rerouting Tool: This is a new automated tool that depicts constrained airspace to airlines and other users of the nation's airspace system. The tool is valuable because it allows pilots to provide early intent of their preferred routing around constrained areas like storms. This alleviates the need for the FAA to implement required reroutes and gives the airlines scheduling options and a more efficient utilization of the available airspace.

* Adaptive Airspace Flow Programs (AFPs): This program was implemented as an enhancement to the Airspace Flow Program that was deployed in June 2006 that enabled the FAA to adjust to changing weather patterns, which is crucial during the summer convective weather season when storms grow rapidly and move across large swaths of the country. This summer, the FAA can adjust the parameters of an AFP based on changing weather intensity, providing a more effective way to manage traffic during severe summer storms that will minimize delays. Using AFPs, the FAA is able to target only those flights that are expected to encounter severe weather. The targeted flights are issued an Expect Departure Clearance Time, giving the airlines the option to accept a delayed, but predictable departure time, to take a longer route to fly around the weather or to make alternate plans. Last summer - the period from May 2 through August 30, 2007 - a total of 58 AFPs were used, saving approximately $68 million for the airlines, the FAA said.

The FAA said its Adaptive Compression software continues to save money. This program, launched in March 2007, automatically identifies unused arrival slots at airports affected by AFP or ground delays and moves other flights into those slots. This means that maximum arrival rates will be maintained, easing congestion and delays. It is the Adaptive Compression program that saved the $27 million for the airlines.

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