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Airline Competition, Bad Planning Increase Delays - (9/13/1999)

WASHINGTON -- In the war to be the most profitable air carrier, passengers are held hostage - captives at the gate, waiting for a crack in airline’s inefficient scheduling system.

Their own hub and spoke system is a major source of delays. With dozens of planes simultaneously taxiing for takeoff or queuing above a metropolitan airport’s finite amount of airspace and number of runways, the laws of physics kick in. Only a handful will be able to depart or arrive at any given time.

What happens to the rest? They sit and wait.

However, other airline-generated factors contribute to delays as well. Padding schedules is another trick big carriers use to dupe passengers into believing their trip is progressing. Knowing the terminal areas will be jammed with planes at peak times, airlines often build a buffer into schedules, so over-booking won’t be reflected in their on-time percentages. For example, a flight from Washington to Atlanta only takes about an hour instead of the scheduled two hours.

Competition among airlines makes the problem even worse. When one airline offers a profitable flight, then the others counter with the same times. One commercial carrier claimed a loss in excess of $1 million by scheduling a departure at 12:05 p.m., rather than exactly matching the time of a competitor’s noon flight. The airlines would rather have passengers sit on the tarmac with no space to take off safely than lose money.

Airlines not only create congestion in terminal airspace and on the runways, but they also overbook the gates where planes dock. Often aircraft taxi around the concrete to deceive passengers into thinking they’re going somewhere, rather than waiting for the previous flight to clear out. Once a plane lands, it commonly doesn’t have anywhere to go.

"Instead of fixing their problems, airline spokespeople point their fingers at air traffic control," said Randy Schwitz, National Air Traffic Controllers Association executive vice president. "Even if we have the most modern ATC equipment available, without airlines restructuring their scheduling procedures delays won’t be eliminated. We’ll just be able to keep better track of them."

"New equipment is a necessary step for ensuring safe, efficient travel in the future and will help alleviate the 3 percent of delays created by failures and upgrades," Schwitz said. "The airlines’ decisions are motivated by money. But controllers direct planes carrying 1 million passengers each day. Getting those people to their destination safely is our top priority.

"NATCA is a leader in the effort to upgrade the nation’s air traffic control system. Airlines are leaders in the corporate market."

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