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Why flights are taking longer

Wed., May 30, 2007

It takes 25 minutes longer to fly from New York to Los Angeles today than it did 10 years ago, and not because the head winds are stronger or the continental U.S. stretched itself wider.

Dallas-Houston is now an hour-long flight instead of 55 minutes. United Airlines’ 6 p.m. departure from Philadelphia to San Francisco is scheduled for 33 more minutes than it was 10 years ago. New York-Washington flights now get blocked out at almost two hours, even though you can fly it in about 35 minutes.

Travel delays get lots of attention for the pain of being trapped for hours, the inconvenience of missed connections and late arrivals and the cost. About a half-million U.S. flights arrived late last year, and this summer may see record levels of delays, officials say. Estimates peg the cost at roughly $6 billion a year for airlines and more than $9 billion a year for passengers in terms of the value of time lost.

But that’s only part of the problem. Many delays are now simply being incorporated into schedules, at high cost to consumers and airlines. Congestion at airports and in the sky have forced airlines to pad their schedules more than ever so flights have a better chance of arriving “on-time,” which the Department of Transportation defines as within 15 minutes of the airline’s scheduled arrival time. Flights now arrive technically “on-time,” but with 30 minutes or more of delay written into the flight plan.

A check of two dozen flights from June airline schedules found that “block times” — the time airlines allot in their schedules for the trip — are about 10 percent higher than they were in June 1997. That kind of slowdown makes trips less productive for travelers with more time spent sitting and waiting. It can also frustrate travelers who arrive “early” on days when there aren’t slowdowns, only to wait for a gate to open at the scheduled arrival time.

Even though some of today’s airplanes cruise faster than the models they have replaced and are equipped with advanced navigation systems capable of flying the shortest route between two distant points, airlines have had little opportunity to take advantage of those improvements. Congestion in the sky and high fuel prices often slow down the cruise speed of planes. A lack of modern equipment for air-traffic controllers means planes still fly from one radio beacon on the ground to another, hop-scotching across the country instead of flying shorter, more-direct paths.

Experts say congested airports need more runways, and the modernization program that the Federal Aviation Administration has embarked on should eventually help speed up air travel. But, “it’ll probably get worse before it gets better,” said Russell Chew, former operating chief at the FAA who recently became chief operating officer at JetBlue Airways Corp.


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