July 1, 2005

U.S. travelers may face summer of flight delays

By John Crawley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A recent uptick in flight delays atmajor U.S. airports may signal the start of summer-long traveldisruptions, a government watchdog said on Friday.

The warning from the Transportation Department InspectorGeneral's office came as millions of travelers took advantageof low fares and plentiful flights for trips over the longFourth of July holiday.

U.S. airlines expect to fly more than 200 millionpassengers from the end of May through the first week inSeptember, a 4 percent increase over last year.

Following a drop in April and May, delays rose sharply atkey airports during the first two weeks of the summer travelseason, according to government statistics. Through mid-June,23 airports had delays affecting at least 25 percent offlights.

The rate at nine airports -- including Newark,Philadelphia, Miami, Washington Dulles and Chicago O'Hare --was 30 percent or greater. At O'Hare, the government hasbrokered an agreement among major carriers to limit flightsthrough October.

Airline delays are usually worse in summer because ofthunderstorms. FAA forecasters are predicting a heavy stormseason and storms were bad in the Midwest in early June.

The worst airport for delays was Atlanta Hartsfield, where35 percent of flights were delayed during the first two weeksof June.

A commercial flight that is 15 minutes late is considereddelayed. Ten airports had delays that averaged more than onehour and the worst was New York's LaGuardia with an averagewait of 71 minutes.

"It's too soon to tell whether this is a short-termcondition resulting from anomalous weather or if it is a morepervasive problem," Mead's report said.

But Mead's office said regulators should be watching allcongested airports closely to determine if broader federalintervention is necessary.

The surge in delays is partly driven by low-cost carriergrowth in bigger markets, hub consolidations by the biggestairlines, increased regional jet traffic and a surge inpassenger growth, Mead said.

U.S. airlines, trying save money, plan to fly planes fullthis summer and wait out delays rather than cancel flights, theFederal Aviation Administration has said.

In a departure from previous practice, airlines are notexpected to keep significant backup aircraft on hand to respondto big summer delays. Carriers want to manage setbacks andstretch out traffic throughout the day.

Delays cost airlines more than $6.2 billion in operatingexpenses in 2004, industry figures show.