Long on-board delay focus won’t solve air traffic crisis

by David Burns on March 31, 2009

Long on-board delays. Perfect fodder for yellow journalists and for government officials looking for easy causes to help with reelection. But they are not the right focus for those hoping to convince government officials to fix our ailing national Air Traffic Control (ATC) system.

The Air Transport Association (ATA) released a statement praising data gathered by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) regarding long on-board delays and calling for the modernization of the air traffic control system.

ATA and the airlines were strong supporters of the improved data collection that went into today’s BTS report “Taxi-Out and Other Tarmac Times.” It comes as no surprise that with more detailed data the number of reported delays is up slightly with the addition of roughly 26 delays per month over the four months reported. While this number is still remarkably low (an increase of one out of every 20,347 flights or 0.0049 percent), what it tells us is that we are on the right track in calling for the aggressive roll-out of a modernized air traffic management system that will help drive these delay numbers even lower.

I agree wholeheartedly with ATA on the need to modernize this country’s antiquated ATC system. And I see the airlines’ and ATA’s need to support improved data collection for the “Taxi-Out and Other Tarmac Times” this report details. To not support it would be political suicide.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Aviation Consumer Protection Division’s latest report, out of 532,339 flights operated by the major carriers in January 2009, there were 86 that were delayed on the tarmac greater than three hours. Eighty-six. That’s 0.016 percent of the total flight schedule.

The DOT provided details for the subset of flights in January that were more than four hours late. With one exception, they all occurred in the Ohio Valley during a snow and ice storm that, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, dumped more than seven feet of snow on the area. In December, it looks like Houston had a very bad day for flying on the 10th. Sure enough, it snowed there too.

So what we can deduce is that the airline which has a hub impacted by poor weather will show up on the naughty list. That’s not newsworthy.

Customers, legislators, the media and lobbyists like the ATA are paying attention to the wrong statistic. Embedded in the DOT’s report (see their Table 9) is the fact that 42,787 flights (8.07 percent) of the country’s January flight schedule was delayed because of a “National Aviation System Delay.”

The phrase “National Aviation System Delay” doesn’t sell papers, get votes or pull at constituents’ heartstrings as well as “Long On-Board Delay” does. But 42,787 certainly speaks more loudly than 86 when it comes to demonstrating the need to fix our nation’s crumbling air traffic control system.

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  • The man who notices things

    David- I have said it before and I’ll say it again – delays are NOT the result of the ATC system – they are the result of the airlines scheduling too many flights for too little asphalt. ATC moves the tin through as fast as they can – if the airlines would go back to flying real airplanes instead of 50 RJ’s on every route they would not have delays.

    If an airport in good weather can handle 120 operations per hours [thats takeoffs and landings] and the airlines in total schedule 150, the 30 flights will be delayed that hour. If you have bad weather- and the capacity drops to 90 per hour – then 60 flights are delayed. Who then pays the cost of delays and missing flights? The passengers.

    Whining about ATC is not going to build new runways or taxiways. General Aviation is NOT causing these delays. Private jets and props ALWAYS get less attractive routing, more delays and less preferential handling than airlines. The ATC system was DESIGNED by the airlines for the airlines.

    If the airlines want to build more airports- with better designs [just look at PHL - 1/2 the flights have to cross the active runway to get to their departure runway or a gate!] or LGA with short, intersecting runways.

    It is not ATC – ATC is blamed because THEY start the delays to keep airplanes on the ground – but it is 100% the fault of the airlines. Instead of operating 3 50 seat airplanes, operate ONE 150 seat airplane at the middle time – thats FOUR fewer operations at that airport.

    The press and the blogosphere needs to understand this issue, before you opine on it. Just like rectums, we all have one but they generally are not the best looking things . . .

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