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Federal Rule Would Require Airlines to Give More Details About Delayed Flights

Tuesday, 14 November 2000 12:00 AM

The requirement, expected to take effect early next year, would for the first time provide passengers with such details as whether a flight was affected by factors within the control of the airlines, such as crew shortages, or by other circumstances, such as weather.

But while the new initiative would help consumers make more informed choices when booking flights, it would do nothing to address the symptoms behind the mounting number of delays and cancellations.

Federal transportation officials Monday acknowledged that the plan doesn't address how to alleviate problems at the nation's overburdened airports, but said it instead points out how poorly airlines are operating due to an air traffic control system stretched to the limits.

"We are trying to make information transparent to the public regarding airline performance, extreme weather, the high volume of aircraft and air traffic control reliability," said Stephen Van Beek, associate deputy secretary in the U.S. Department of Transportation. "To me, that's the best progress we can expect right now."

The recommendations, contained in an interim report released Monday by a task force composed of representatives from government, the airline industry and its labor unions, and consumer-advocacy groups, establishes specific categories that reflect the reasons for delays and cancellations. The report also started the process for the FAA and the airlines to use the same definitions in measuring delays, and it attempted to lay the groundwork for the airline industry to start improving its sagging performance.

The committee's recommendations will be submitted for approval to U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater by Nov. 21. If it wins acceptance, as expected, the measure would take effect in 2001.

The air carriers would report the expanded performance information each month to the Department of Transportation. It would be made available to the public by the government, the airlines, travel agents and on numerous Internet sites.

For the first time, consumers would be told whether flights were delayed or canceled due to circumstances within an airline's control – such as crew shortages or aircraft maintenance problems – or because of other factors that include severe weather, closed runways, air traffic equipment failures or too many planes for the Federal Aviation Administration to handle efficiently.

While the program would require airlines to specify the causes when reporting to the FAA, it would also seek to improve the information supplied to travelers who are trying to determine whether their flights that day will be delayed or canceled.

In the case of bad weather, travelers – many of whom have built up a distrust of the limited and often incorrect information from the airlines and the FAA – would be told whether the weather conditions were actual or forecasted and whether they affected the departure airport, the airspace along the way or the arrival airport.

Officials said they believed the new reporting system would help restore public confidence. In fact, the report itself acknowledged the credibility gap.

"There appears to be a widespread public perception that timely, consistent and credible information is lacking as to the causes of delays and cancellations when they occur," the report said.

Top airline officials said that even air carriers don't always have all the information about the cause of a delay; they expressed optimism that the enhanced data collection will help airline planners, who are forced to cancel blocks of flights when operations fall behind schedule, to do their jobs better.

"Because I don't always have the full story about how our operations at LaGuardia Airport are going or about thunderstorms moving toward Chicago, I'm forced to make decisions that aren't in the best interests of consumers," said Russ Chew, managing director of systems operations at American Airlines.

In the first six months of this year, the number of passenger complaints about flight problems filed with the Department of Transportation was 72 percent higher than it was during the same period in 1999.

The nation's 10 largest air carriers are already required to report their on-time performance each month to the DOT, but they do not provide the cause of cancellations or late flights, or the duration of delays.

Experts have said the failure to pinpoint the causes of delays and cancellations has aggravated the situation and contributed to a steady decline in the airline industry's credibility with the public.

Delays lasting more than 45 minutes increased about 60 percent between 1995 and 1999 and the number of canceled flights more than tripled, to 160,000 flights last year, according to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Global Airline Industry Program.

"It is reasonable to infer that the much-discussed phenomenon of passenger rage may largely be due to these sizable increases in the incidence of exceptionally long delays and of flight cancellations," said MIT aeronautics professor Amedeo Odoni.

Odoni said because the strong demand for air travel has resulted in nearly all the seats being filled on most flights, passengers are not only more likely to miss flight connections due to long delays or cancellations, but also less likely to find an empty seat on a later flight.

Airline officials serving on the committee agreed that better reporting of their companies' performance problems is long overdue and they acknowledged that all delays are not equal.

"If Southwest Airlines' average delay was only two minutes per flight and mine is three hours, I think that makes a huge difference," said Peter McDonald, vice president of operations services at United Airlines.

But some officials cautioned that providing better information does not address the long-term problem.

"Unless we really make changes in our aviation infrastructure, this is just like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," said David Stempler, a committee member and the president of the Air Travelers Association. "But it is a necessary step, because the public is not made aware that, while it might be clear and sunny in Chicago, there are weather problems in cities where passengers will change flights. Or that we have an inefficient air traffic control system and not enough runways, taxiways and gates to meet the demand."

(C) 2000, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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The requirement, expected to take effect early next year, would for the first time provide passengers with such details as whether a flight was affected by factors within the control of the airlines, such as crew shortages, or by other circumstances, such as weather. But...
Tuesday, 14 November 2000 12:00 AM
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