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The Big Trade: Passenger Delays for Airline Profits - (9/8/1999)

WASHINGTON–Cha-Ching. When glassy-eyed passengers are stranded at the airport, wearily waiting for a delayed flight, airline executives can’t hear their loyal patrons’ cries of frustration over the sound of their ringing cash registers.

"Each airline makes its own schedule for departures and arrivals without regard to other airlines or airport capacity," said Randy Schwitz, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "It’s like trying to cram 10 pounds of sand into a five pound bag. It won’t all fit at once.

"Because the profit-driven airlines place too many planes on the runways at peak times and are currently stuffing 600 extra flights each day to an already taxed system, delays are on the rise."

Clear examples of this are ringing up across the country. Fifty-seven operations are scheduled in a 10-minute period around the six o’clock rush hour at Dallas/Fort Worth tower, while the airport’s capacity is 35 operations. Even if the weather is perfect all across the United States and there are no equipment problems, 22 flights will be automatically delayed at DFW in 10 minutes. Cha-ching.

At Minneapolis tower 44 operations are scheduled in a 15-minute period where only 30 planes can depart and arrive, meaning 14 planes are delayed under perfect conditions. Cha-ching.

There’s more of the same at Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport where 22 of 72 10-minute segments in a 12-hour period are scheduled over capacity–meaning the runways are over-booked nearly one-third of the time. Cha-ching.

The delays resulting from the airline’s over-scheduling occur everyday at every major U.S. airport. Meanwhile, the air carriers give them the misnomer of air traffic control delays since controllers, whose primary objective is ensuring the public’s safety, can only conduct a certain number of operations, set by the Federal Aviation Administration’s standards.

In actuality, only three percent of delays are a result of ATC equipment problems. The highest portion of delays, almost 75 percent, are a result of inclement weather. "Due to passenger complaints, the airlines are faced with a congressionally mandated ‘Passenger Bill of Rights’ and the air traffic control system is used as a convenient scapegoat for the airlines to protect their precious profits," Schwitz said. "However, the reality of the situation remains. If airlines continue to overbook runways, then passengers will continue to wait unnecessarily."

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