Thursday, November 15, 2007

Airline Delays Accelerating?

Above: Pinal Air Park near Tucson, one of two big desert sites where airlines can park planes.

I once worked for a smart newspaper city editor who had a couple of pet peeves on behalf of readers. Top on the list was: In a story, don't ask me any damned questions. I'm a reader who is paying you 25 cents (this was a long time ago) to give me answers, not to annoy me with questions.

That said, are airline delays accelerating?

The stats are sketchy, as the Thanksgiving holiday travel season/airport torture-fest starts tomorrow. But early indications do not look good, in an air-traffic system stretched to its limits. Last night, I was getting calls from people maneuvering flight cancellations and delays on the West Coast, bound for New York.

Here's how it looked yesterday afternoon and night at New York airports, which are the dog that wags the national air-travel system tail. Ground-delay programs were in effect by late afternoon at all three airports, which also were citing weather, specifically "low ceiling," for mounting delays.

Using the brilliant old technique of looking out the window, what I saw was a moderately cloudy late afternoon, with no storms and no rain. It was a Wednesday before the holiday season, a slow travel day, and weather across the country was O.K.

Anyway, at Newark, a mere 17 percent of the 347 flights scheduled to arrive between 3 p.m. and midnight yesterday were on time. Of the late arrivals, the vast majority, 208, got in 45 minutes or more (and sometimes much more) after arrival time. (The stats are from

At Kennedy, only 36 percent of the 338 flights scheduled to arrive between 3 p.m. and midnight arrived on time. Of the late arrivals, 135 got in 45 minites or more after arrival time.

At LaGuardia, 18 percent of the 274 flights scheduled to arrive between 3 p.m. and midnight arrived on time, and of the late arrivals, 153 got in 45 minutes or more late.

This, folks, does not look good.

Meanwhile, the airlines are busy giving songs and dances to anyone who taps them on the shoulder. They're tripping over one another to send out press releases assuring the public that they will more more adept at providing adance information to travelers in the event of impending disruptions.
Not to worry!
Several major airlines have actually issued press releases saying they've reiterated or imposed procedures for addressing the ticking-time-bomb problem of stranded passengers. Most say they will re-assess the situation when a plane is stuck on the tarmac for three hours, allowing pilots and ops centers to try to work out a way to get the plane back to the gate.

And the airlines are also claiming that they have installed new technology to run their operations more efficiently and to track delays and diversions better.
Yeah, and I've installed a new system to address the problem of mounds of clutter on my desk. It's called hope. My wife calls it "pipe dream."

Are delays accelerating?

My hunch is, you bet.

How will the airline deal with disruptions?

My guess is they'll punt. The airlines -- network carriers and low-cost carriers alike -- are terrified by surging fuel costs and declining revenue quality, to the point where schedules could be pulled back on short notice.

Mike Boyd's airline-forecast column this week at makes some very intriguing points.

Some are long-term look (chronic high oil prices, severe pilot shortages, especially on the regional carriers, looming labor-union trouble).

And some are short-term -- most prominently, that rising fares might finally trigger a sudden, unanticipated drop in demand, causing airlines to "valve off" capacity.

Valve-off capacity? That means, basically, remove more seats from the system and on short notice.

How do you do this? Well, if you're a big network carrier with all those older planes, say Northwest and American, you can rather simply yank some out of service and park them in the desert till things blow over, if and when. After all, you own that trusty old MD80, which has been paid off since Christ was a corporal, as that same city editor I knew used to say.

If you're a low-cost carrier you have a bit more of a problem. Chances are higher that your (newer) planes still have a monthly payment due. Parking them in the Sonoran or Mojave deserts, where they generate no revenue at all, isn't an attractive option.

I'm hearing a lot of speculation right now that airlines have contingency plans to "valve down" capacity on short notice even before the end of the year. Any fall-off in passenger demand caused by rising fares wouldn't really manifest itself in the next six weeks of peak travel, since most polans have been made and most tickets have been purchased. But the smell of panic is in the air.

My bet is the airlines slip another unilateral fare hike in this weekend. It would be the ninth incremental fare hike since Labor Day.

Sorry, but I have to leave this with another unanswered question.

Will panicked airlines, despite their growing fears of serious federal intervention if they start stranding passengers in large numbers again, reduce capacity on short notice?

I was walking past Macy's in Manhattan yesterday and my spirits lifted as I watched the crews and trucks and cranes installing the massive store's Christmas decorations. I was up by the skating rink in Rockefeller Center the other day and it too was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

We're headed to Tucson this weekend for Thanksgiving. (Pinal Air Park, where airlines can mothball or temporarily park planes, is nearby, and I expect to pay it a visit).
But then it's back home. I like New York at Christmas. And that is where I intend to be, far from the airports.
At least that's my hope and/or pipe dream.


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