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Airlines: 10 Million Minutes Late

When we read about airline delays, they are usually presented to us in percentages. Granted, percentages give us good estimates, but what are the real numbers—say, in minutes? I asked the Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) to provide their latest complete statistics (which happened to be for the month of January, 2001). They were kind enough to compile the "minutes late" data for 197 U.S. airports, and the numbers were shocking. The grand tally was 9,882,182 minutes late for just one month. Arrival delays added up to 5,237,590 minutes late, and departure delays 4,644,592 minutes late. No wonder percentages are used!

So, what are the excuses for being 10 million minutes late? Overly congested airports and crowded airspace have overwhelmed the country's air transport system. Airlines, aviation experts, and the government are trying to improve the problems, but it's going to take time and massive funding to improve the beleaguered system.

Approaching Gridlock

These delay statistics do not bode well for the world’s biggest airline market. The number of domestic passengers is expected to double to more than one billion by the year 2010, and it's going to get worse. Industry figures estimate that for each percent of air travel growth, air travel delays will increase five percent. In the past five years, air traffic has increased by 27 percent. The numbers speak for themselves, and growth has come at a huge price with lost time and money.

Billions Lost

According to data compiled by the Air Transport Association (ATA), May was the worst month for major airline revenue in at least two decades. Airlines have been hit hard by a sharp decline in business travel, with many customers flying on lower-cost tickets or forgoing travel altogether. And delays have played a substantial part in the cost of doing business.

Another ATA report on air traffic congestion sheds some light on the amount of money it costs airlines and consumers when flights are delayed. The ATA's report states that aircraft operating costs due to air-traffic control delays were over $3 billion in 1998. The report goes on to include passengers' costs at a "conservative" $25.70 per hour—delays in 1998 cost air travelers about $2.1 billion.

A Billion Excuses

The majority of the problems are due to the basic flaws in our aviation infrastructure, and the past misappropriation of the Aviation Trust Fund (ATF), which holds tax money raised from airline tickets, cargo, and fuel sales. Although more than $10 billion has been going into the ATF annually, only $4 billion has been used each year to expand and improve aviation infrastructure; the rest was used to offset the federal deficit. Although more monies have been released in the past two years, years of misappropriation have culminated in the failure to keep up with consumer demand to provide adequate capacity in our airports and air-traffic control systems.


More Airports and Runways

The most obvious cure is to build more airports. In the past 15 years, only two new runways have been built at U.S. airports. Part of the problem is that many airports are located in flat, wetland areas that fall under heavy environmental regulations, preventing many airports from expanding and adding new runways. And, as much as people want to fly, few welcome the idea of bigger or new airports in their backyard. Anti-airport activists have become so vocal that new airport construction rarely occurs. Last fall, James Goodwin, Chairman of United Airlines, went so far to say the real cause of most flight delays is the local activists who oppose airport expansion in their communities.

Alternative Airports

Another solution being touted is the use of alternate airports. However, airlines are reluctant to offer alternatives away from their hubs, as the 31 busiest airports accounted for 70 percent of all passenger traffic. On the other hand, some airport authorities, such as those at Boston's Logan Airport, have suggested using alternative airports to ease passenger volume.

Realistic Airline Scheduling

To combat unrealistic scheduling, DOT Secretary, Norman Mineta, supports peak pricing alternatives (schemes that would charge airlines more money to land at the busiest airports during the busiest times). To make their schedules look more attractive, airlines deliberately list more flights in busy periods than airports can cope with. Such flights have no hope of taking off on time, but journey times are padded out to give them at least a chance of arriving on schedule. At Dallas/Fort Worth airport, airlines schedule 57 flight operations in a 10-minute period around the six o’clock rush hour. Airport capacity is 35 flight operations. Even if the weather is perfect across the country, and there are no equipment problems, 22 flights will be delayed during this 10-minute period.

Air Traffic Control Privatization

There is also talk about privatizing air traffic control. Recently, Boeing presented the government with a plan to privatize air-traffic control, which is currently under review. Canada has had great success with their program. Since it was established in 1996, the private, nonprofit Nav Canada has cut fees by 30 percent, increased controllers' salaries, and begun upgrading the country's air-traffic control (ATC) technology from paper strips to computers.

Satellite Navigation

Eventually, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) plans to use satellite-based systems called global positioning satellites (GPS) to completely change the nation's air traffic control system so that it can handle more traffic, while easing delays and increasing safety. This new technology, along with updated airline operating procedures, would increase capacity by allowing for more precise landings and take-offs. In addition, these systems will eventually allow for "free flight," where pilots can choose their own routes rather than fly in pre-selected patterns, to avoid congestion and save time.

Make RJ's Fly At Different Altitudes From Big Jets

Regional jet aircraft (RJs), which fly from regional towns in America to airport hubs, are adding to the hold-ups. According to reports published by the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development (CAASD), as RJs replace turboprops, airline traffic that normally flies at lower altitudes below 20,000 feet has moved higher up into the increasingly crowded airspace where the larger jets fly. There are plans in the U.S. to make regional jets operate at lower altitudes.

Watch The Weather

Bad weather accounted for more than two-thirds of flight delays in 2000, which was a record year for delays nationally. In April, Mineta said he's considering the possibility that air traffic controllers have become "overly sensitive" to bad weather—too quick to delay or divert planes or require extra spacing between them.

In certain weather situations that now result in delays, Mineta said that pilots should be allowed to fly around disturbances. New forecasting measures, along with regular updates from flight planners, are being used in the U.S. to adjust routes in advance to help pilots avoid thunderstorms and other weather problems. In addition, new weather computers (currently utilized in a few airports) are cutting weather-related air delays. The promising system cut 50,000 hours of delay a year in tests at New York City's three major airports. However, the FAA citing "budget constraints" says the new technology will be placed in only 11 airports by 2003, instead of the originally planned 33.

Not Fuzzy Math

So, in the scheme of things, just how much time is 10 million minutes? There are:

  • 1440 minutes in a day
  • 525,600 minutes in a year, and

  • 9,882,182 minutes equals 6862.62 days
  • 6862.62 days equals 18.8 years
This isn't "fuzzy math." Airlines were delayed 18.8 years in one month! Clearly, gridlock in the sky is rapidly approaching, increasing the risk of accidents. If "budget constraints" do not allow proven technology to be implemented in our airports soon, air travel costs will drastically escalate. It would be an ironic twist that the 1960s technology currently running much of our air-traffic network ends up taking us back to 1960s pricing, with air travel being too expensive for the average consumer.

See the following chart (listed by airport code) for delays at your airport (statistics for January, 2001):

Airports Arrival Delays
(in minutes)
Departure Delays
(in minutes)
Allentown (ABE) 4,403 2,893
Albuquerque (ABQ) 37,724 31,635
Kodiak (ADQ) 769 590
Albany, NY (ALB) 12,705 8,268
Amarillo (AMA) 4,194 3,224
Anchorage (ANC) 20,508 14,670
Atlanta (ATL) 238,817 222,221
Austin (AUS) 37,085 26,469
Asheville (AVL) 678 189
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AVP) 960 1,198
Kalamazoo (AZO) 859 389
Hartford (BDL) 33,116 27,783
Bethel (BET) 1,796 1,800
Binghamton (BGM) 1,040 712
Birmingham, AL (BHM) 14,287 11,522
Billings (BIL) 3,221 2,079
Bismarck (BIS) 597 344
Nashville (BNA) 43,590 40,478
Boise (BOI) 15,595 12,871
Boston (BOS) 122,382 91,722
Aguadilla, PR (BQN) 622 58
Brownsville (BRO) 142 126
Barrow (BRW) 426 473
Baton Rouge (BTR) 2,319 2,504
Burlington, VT (BTV) 2,064 2,015
Buffalo (BUF) 15,138 12,052
Los Angeles (Burbank) 28,924 27,606
Washington (Baltimore) 78,628 76,572
Bozeman (BZN) 1,425 1,145
Columbia, SC (CAE) 2,262 1,864
Akron/Canton (CAK) 1,173 779
Cordova (CDV) 627 438
Chattanooga (CHA) 346 87
Charleston, SC (CHS) 5,496 3,103
Cedar Rapids (CID) 3,337 2,089
Cleveland (CLE) 46,094 32,761
Charlotte (CLT) 74,378 80,837
Columbus, OH (CMH) 29,745 23,725
Colorado Springs (COS) 13,022 7,282
Corpus Christi (CRP) 2,969 1,259
Charleston, WV (CRW) 849 460
Cincinnati (CVG) 54,622 46,800
Daytona Beach (DAB) 1,575 2,339
Dallas (Love) 28,950 27,863
Dayton (DAY) 8,440 4,604
Washington (National) 66,708 44,837
Denver (DEN) 116,820 130,404
Dallas (DFW) 186,213 170,488
Duluth (DLH) 466 1,110
Durango, CO (DRO) 473 398
Des Moines (DSM) 4,600 4,312
Detroit (DTW) 106,851 124,175
Dutch Harbor (DUT) 758 783
Vail/Eagle EGE) 2,697 2,410
Corning (ELM) 1,130 665
El Paso (ELP) 21,328 17,487
Erie (ERI) 1,076 550
Eugene (EUG) 2,041 1,722
New York (Newark) 134,740 101,162
Fairbanks (FAI) 4,260 3,064
Fargo (FAR) 1,810 356
Fresno (FAT) 199 73
Fayetteville, NC (FAY) 467 367
Kalispell (FCA) 999 1,367
Ft. Lauderdale (FLL) 64,407 63,324
Flint (FNT) 895 315
Sioux Falls (FSD) 1,698 1,378
Ft. Wayne (FWA) 344 225
Spokane (GEG) 17,332 12,575
Grand Forks (GFK) 753 421
Gulfport/Biloxi (GPT) 529 117
Green Bay (GRB) 1,625 968
Grand Rapids (GRR) 6,951 4,934
Greensboro (GSO) 9,895 7,045
Greenville/Spartanburg (GSP) 3,596 2,250
Great Falls (GTF) 1,308 1,196
Gunnison (GUC) 871 458
Hayden (HDN) 1,576 1,763
Helena (HLN) 635 283
Honolulu (HNL) 22,029 20,283
Houston (Hobby) 39,787 42,203
New York (Westchester County) 3,552 4,322
Harlingen (HRL) 3,576 3,154
Huntsville/Decatur (HSV) 3,771 2,408
Washington (Dulles) 40,175 41,082
Houston (IAH) 102,147 77,272
Wichita (ICT) 5,389 3,479
Wilmington, NC (ILM) 747 357
Indianapolis (IND) 30,925 20,984
New York (Long Island/MacArthur) 8,602 6,485
Ithaca (ITH) 1,234 590
Hilo (ITO) 1,461 1,016
Jackson, WY (JAC) 2,149 2,057
Jackson, MS (JAN) 6,017 4,931
Jacksonville (JAX) 19,523 16,158
New York (JFK) 54,735 49,288
Juneau (JNU) 3,462 3,366
Kona (KOA) 2,819 2,097
Ketchikan (KTN) 2,586 1,949
Lansing (LAN) 1,858 964
Las Vegas (LAS) 159,717 167,911
Los Angeles (LAX) 227,807 212,386
Lubbock (LBB) 3,164 2,838
Lexington (LEX) 3,476 1,537
New York (LaGuardia) 134,212 99,323
Los Angeles (Long Beach) 2,938 2,488
Kauai Island (LIH) 2,364 922
Little Rock (LIT) 9,793 6,926
Lincoln (LNK) 2,043 1,234
La Crosse (LSE) 396 216
Midland/Odessa (MAF) 3,594 2,798
Tri City (MBS) 2,626 1,347
Kansas City (MCI) 52,929 44,787
Orlando (MCO) 102,758 91,592
Harrisburg (MDT) 5,548 3,272
Chicago (Midway) 36,394 38,989
Memphis (MEM) 34,078 35,430
McAllen (MFE) 3,080 1,201
Medford (MFR) 1,977 1,513
Manchester, NH (MHT) 11,979 9,613
Miami (MIA) 69,089 78,717
Milwaukee (MKE) 11,808 6,872
Melbourne, FL (MLB) 1,783 730
Moline (MLI) 1,806 1,389
Monroe (MLU) 2,139 1,302
Mobile (MOB) 4,278 3,606
Minot (MOT) 814 611
Madison (MSN) 3,030 1,705
Missoula (MSO) 1,737 1,200
Minneapolis (MSP) 98,198 96,918
New Orleans (MSY) 41,983 33,787
Montrose (MTJ) 218 50
Myrtle Beach (MYR) 1,144 580
San Francisco (Oakland) 62,791 66,222
Kahului (OGG) 7,080 8,130
Oklahoma City (OKC) 18,192 12,910
Omaha (OMA) 16,820 12,817
Nome (OME) 930 875
Los Angeles (Ontario) 40,278 33,198
Chicago (O’Hare) 272,013 246,207
Norfolk (ORF) 11,765 7,148
Kotzebue (OTZ) 860 720
West Palm Beach (PBI) 28,525 25,369
Portland, OR (PDX) 54,894 44,825
Philadelphia (PHL) 131,707 112,419
Phoenix (PHX) 253,676 231,049
Pittsburgh (PIT) 68,506 67,449
Pensacola (PNS) 4,483 2,065
Pasco/Kennewick (PSC) 1,307 907
Petersburg (PSG) 1,146 1,010
Palm Springs (PSP) 6,022 5,197
Providence (PVD) 19,820 14,633
Portland, ME (PWM) 5,263 4,086
Rapid City (RAP) 704 313
Raleigh/Durham (RDU) 27,225 20,767
Richmond (RIC) 11,137 10,068
Reno (RNO) 30,701 28,556
Roanoke (ROA) 1,302 857
Rochester, NY (ROC) 11,831 9,509
Rochester, MN (RST) 1,734 841
Ft. Myers (RSW) 17,826 15,207
San Diego (SAN) 79,574 68,334
San Antonio (SAT) 33,095 22,896
Savannah/Hilton Head (SAV) 3,486 2,507
Santa Barbara (SBA) 767 1,570
South Bend (SBN) 1,274 848
Prudhoe Bay/Dead Horse (SCC) 382 358
Louisville (SDF) 16,620 11,241
Seattle (SEA) 120,672 103,845
San Francisco (SFO) 153,317 128,711
Springfield, MO (SGF) 1,195 717
Shreveport (SHV) 2,258 2,487
Sitka (SIT) 1,076 544
San Jose, CA (SJC) 71,477 65,109
San Juan, PR (SJU) 37,958 35,413
Salt Lake City (SLC) 87,412 87,063
Sacramento (SMF) 38,646 39,801
Los Angeles (Orange/Santa Ana) 33,336 29,862
Sarasota (SRQ) 3,799 3,068
St. Louis (STL) 149,552 134,076
St. Thomas, USVI (STT) 4,394 3,459
St. Croix USVI (STX) 694 558
Sioux City (SUX) 103 213
Newburgh/Stewart (SWF) 1,134 866
Syracuse (SYR) 10,762 5,629
Tallahassee (TLH) 1,576 1,287
Toledo (TOL) 925 203
Tampa/St. Petersburg (TPA) 64,282 52,559
Tri-Cities (TRI) 488 372
Tulane (TUL) 18,075 12,274
Tucson (TUS) 24,301 19,400
Traverse City (TVC) 489 391
Knoxville (TYS) 4,047 2,526
Valparaiso (VPS) 917 356
Wrangell (WRG) 1,109 1,090
Yakutat (YAK) 426 490


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