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Flying the Unfriendly Skies

By Mason Spirit contributor on October 1, 2008

How did America’s airports become so congested, and what can be done to alleviate the backups? Mason researchers believe they have a solution, and if the powers that be are listening, passengers may be able to say “buh-bye” to what has become terminal chaos.

By James Greif

George Donohue, director of Mason’s Center for Air Transportation Systems Research, is coauthor of a new book titled Terminal Chaos: Why U.S. Air Travel Is Broken and How to Fix It.

Last year, American passengers waited a total of 284.5 million hours—approximately 32,477 years—because of flight delays.

“Commercial flying in the United States is often an abysmal experience, and our research shows that it is only going to get worse,” says Mason aviation expert George Donohue. “Passengers are frustrated by their inability to have a predictable, comfortable trip.”

In the new book, Terminal Chaos: Why U.S. Air Travel Is Broken and How to Fix It, Donohue and visiting research fellow Russell Shaver analyze the causes of the current air transportation problem and suggest solutions that could put the broken system on the path to recovery.

According to Donohue, who directs Mason’s Center for Air Transportation Systems Research, the problems have been brewing for decades. Before joining Mason, Donohue served as acquisition executive and head of research and development at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) where he worked on implementing technology to help alleviate flight delays. At Mason, his continued study of the problem using computer models has revealed that technology alone will do little or nothing to relieve delays.

Inconvenient and Unsafe

Donohue and Shaver have found that the most serious problem is the overscheduling of flights at key airports, producing delays and flight cancellations that degrade the traveling experience systemwide and have serious safety implications. Research conducted at the center shows a high correlation between safety issues and overcrowded flight schedules.

“The tighter the schedule, the less safe the air transportation system will be,” says Donohue. He explains that when airplanes are overscheduled at an airport, they are trying to land at a rate higher than what the runway can accept. This situation puts tremendous pressure on the controllers to keep the delays down while keeping the planes at a safe distance from each other. Because airplanes circling an airport have caused accidents in the past, air traffic controllers want to get those planes down on the runway to avoid midair collisions.

Donohue blames the congestion in the United States on the deregulation of the airline industry in 1978. Those laws took away government control over how many flights could be scheduled at a given time at a given airport.

“There is no rule in the United States that prevents the airlines from scheduling significantly beyond the safe operating capacity of the airports,” Donohue says.

In contrast, European regulatory agencies use slot controls and do not allow airlines to schedule more flights than the airports can safely handle, which gives air travelers in Europe a much more predictable and enjoyable flight experience than travelers in the United States.

Why do U.S. passengers put up with terrible service? Donohue suggests that they believe delays are just a part of modern industrialized society. “Passengers are treated horribly, and they simply accept it.”

One Way Out

One short-term solution to the chaos is something Donohue calls the “30 percent solution.” He proposes that the airlines reduce their schedule by 30 percent and use aircraft that are 30 percent larger at the 10 busiest airports. The takeoff and landing slots at the busiest airports would then be auctioned to the airlines at a fair-market value.

Donohue believes this slight switch could eliminate most of the delays. “The average airplane size at many of our major airports today is 100 seats. A Boeing 737 is about 30 percent larger and quite common in current airline fleets,” he says.

But airlines have chosen not to purchase larger aircraft in recent years because customers like frequency of service and smaller airplanes leave the airlines with fewer empty seats on each flight. “It’s a trade-off. Going to a slightly larger aircraft actually provides cheaper flights for the consumers, although the frequency of the flights goes down slightly,” says Donohue.

In addition, airlines do not want to reduce their schedules on their own because if their competition does not follow suit, it would affect their bottom line. Antitrust laws prevent the airlines from collectively reducing their schedules.

Saying “Buh-bye”

For the long term, Donohue and Shaver stress the need to increase the overall capacity and efficiency of airports. But building new runways takes several years, and airports in larger cities may not have the space to expand. New technology to be implemented by the FAA will help, but technology alone is not the answer.

Passengers can be a part of the solution if they become educated about the complicated issues involved and put pressure on the government to act.

“Passengers are treated like sheep,” Donohue says. “I’d like to see a revolt of the sheep. If passengers make their voices heard to the government, changes will have to come. They need to demand that Congress fix the problem, not with just a passengers’ bill of rights, but with policies that unclog the system.”

Tips for Travelers

Terminal Chaos has some suggestions for weary airline travelers.

  • If you absolutely need to get to your destination on the day of travel, do not depart after 2 p.m. Delays build up throughout the day and can turn into flight cancellations in the afternoon and evening.
  • If you are traveling to New York from within 300 miles of the city, take the train. It is more predictable most of the time.
  • If you must fly to New York, avoid LaGuardia Airport; instead use John F. Kennedy International Airport or Newark Liberty International Airport (but only between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.). Islip is a better choice in the evening.
  • Avoid the worst-performing hub connections and the airlines that overschedule them to create the delays. Visit www.greenflights.info to check flight delay history.
  • If you must take a connecting flight through a hub, try to fly through Denver, Houston, or Salt Lake City.
  • Consider using one of the newer low-cost carriers for your next trip. Frontier and Southwest Airlines have the best overall flight delay and cancellation performance in the continental United States.
  • If possible, schedule your flights with a several-day contingency plan, especially in summer and winter when weather can be a problem. Fewer empty seats on each flight combined with overscheduling at key airports creates a system that does not have capacity to handle moderate, let alone major, disruptions.
  • If you need to travel 400 miles or less and you have the time, drive. Even with rising gas prices, it will be cheaper and possibly just as fast.
  • Travel light and never check your luggage if you can help it.
  • On flights with multiple legs, you could get stranded in an unknown city and separated from your luggage. If you must check baggage, keep a carry-on with you with enough clothing and personal grooming supplies to last several days.
  • Finally, forget what you may have heard about booking early. There is usually no price break for those who book early; it may even cost you more.

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