Efforts to reduce flight delay hell largely fail, GAO says

It has to be the kind of report the Federal Aviation Administration just didn't need to hear.

The government's (highly touted mind you) capacity flight demand management policies may help reduce flight delays, but the collective impact of these actions on reducing delay in 2008, especially in the highly congested areas around New York,  is limited, a Government Accountability Office report concluded this week.

To address delay and cancellation problems beginning in summer 2008, the FAA is implementing several actions intended to reduce delays that the GAO called  capacity-enhancing initiatives and demand management policies. Capacity-enhancing initiatives are intended to increase the efficiency of existing capacity by reducing delays and maximizing the number of takeoffs and landings at an airport, while demand management policies influence demand through administrative measures or economic incentives.  The FAA has implemented hourly schedule caps on operations at the New York area airports. The other actions are being developed but are unlikely to be in effect by this summer.

The GAO the FAA's 17 flight delay reduction initiatives-which range from efforts to reduce excessive spacing on final approach before landing to new procedures for handling air traffic during severe weather conditions- could save time but only incrementally over time and in certain situations. The demand management policies may have a more immediate but limited effect on delays since the caps at Newark and LaGuardia were set at a level that was generally designed to avoid an increase in delay over 2007 levels. For example, the caps at Newark are set at a level that that is not expected to bring a delay reduction as compared to delays in 2007, the GAO stated.

Other demand management policies are either still in draft form or have just been issued, and therefore, are unlikely to be in effect by this summer. These policies include an amendment to the 1996 Policy Regarding the Establishment of Airport Rates and Charges-which, among other things, clarifies the ability of airport operators to establish a two-part landing fee structure based on operations and aircraft weight-and proposed rules on "slot auctions" that would lease the majority of New York area airport operations (slots) to incumbent airlines and then would help to develop a market for those slots by annually auctioning a limited number of slot leases, the GAO stated.

Department of Transportation data show flight delays and cancellations have increased nationwide and especially in the New York region. Since 1998, the total number of flight delays and cancellations nationwide has increased 62%, while the number of scheduled operations has increased about 38%.

Flight delays and cancellations in the New York region are even more pronounced. Specifically, since 1998, the number of flight delays and cancellations in the New York region has increased about 111%, while the number of operations has increased about 57%. In 2007, late arriving aircraft accounted for 38% of delays nationwide, but this category indicates little about what caused the aircraft to arrive late, such as severe weather, the GAO stated.

A recent report by the Senate Joint Economic Committee found that collectively, passengers were delayed 320 million hours in 2007 and estimated that domestic flight delays last year cost as much as $41 billion to the U.S. economy.

DOT statistics indicate that 2007 was the second worst year on record for US airlines' on-time performance, and the trends in the percentage of flight delays and cancellations appear to be worsening.

Flights delays are also becoming longer, according to the DOT. The average length of a flight delay increased from more than 49 minutes in 1998 to almost 56 minutes in 2007, an increase of nearly 14% throughout the system. The  number of flights delayed by 180 minutes or more increased from 25,726 flights in 1998 to 64,040 flights in 2007, or about 150%.

The growing air traffic congestion and delay problem that we face in this country is the result of many factors, including airline practices, inadequate investment in airport and air traffic control infrastructure, and how aviation infrastructure is priced. Addressing this problem involves difficult choices, which affect the interests of passengers, airlines, airports, and local economies. If not addressed, congestion problems will intensify as the growth in demand is expected to increase over the next 10 years, the GAO concluded.

For its part the FAA notes that there have been bright spots.  For example, 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.

Some experts say a number of factors may come together - high fuel prices included,  to incrementally reduce delays but even the FAA seems skeptical about that.

"While airlines are announcing reductions in service, and air traffic overall is down, it is likely that the busiest and most congested airports, particularly in the New York/New Jersey region, will not see a significant reduction. Even if they do see a downturn in the short run, history tells us that the aviation industry is very cyclical and that service will eventually return to - and exceed - the record levels we saw last year. Of the current delay minutes, 32.9% were at the three largest airports in the New York area (Newark Liberty International, LaGuardia Airport, and John F. Kennedy International Airport), as compared to 33.4% from last year," said Henry Krakowski, Chief Operating Officer, Air Traffic Organization in a speech before the Senate Committee On Commerce, Science, And Transportation Tuesday.

"To meet these challenges, many carriers are raising fares, streamlining operations, and reducing service. With a few notable exceptions - JFK, Denver and San Francisco, for example - air traffic is down. General aviation operations are also down, due to fuel and insurance costs, further de-stressing the system. System-wide, FAA data shows the number of flights has decreased just over 2%, comparing May 2008 to May 2007," he said.

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