January 22, 2008
Extreme delays that leave passengers trapped on airplanes for hours may seem as random as the weather. But those on-board nightmares that have garnered so much attention are more predictable than you think.
An analysis of extreme-delay data from last year shows clear patterns: Certain airlines and certain airports were more prone than others to long delays before takeoff and very late arrivals. Even certain flights had repeated trouble with very long delays.
Aircraft sit on the tarmac at La Guardia International Airport, Oct. 16.
When storms are forecast, for example, you might be wise to pack some food and tote your own water if traveling on Delta Air Lines Flight 133 from New York’s Kennedy Airport to Los Angeles International Airport. That flight sat for more than three hours waiting to take off after pushing back from a gate on seven different days last year, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That was more than any other flight.
Delta’s Flight 31 on the same route had “taxi-out” times longer than three hours on six occasions, as did Continental Express Flight 2450 from Syracuse, N.Y., to Newark, N.J. Eight other flights ended up with taxi-out delays of three hours or more five different times.
Airlines say some flights simply end up at the end of long lines more often than others because they try to depart at the airport’s busiest time. But it can be more than just unfortunate timing. Airline operations managers can juggle departures because of factors like which crews may run out of duty time first, which planes are more urgently needed for their next scheduled flight, which flights have the most high-dollar business travelers who they least want to be canceled, and which flights are headed to destinations with late-night curfews — where airlines can be fined for flights arriving after a certain hour.
Delta says its flights sat in the JFK “penalty box” — a remote parking area for jets — on days when thunderstorms west of New York caused air-traffic controllers to suspend westbound departures for long periods of time. The carrier will cancel flights headed to airports with weather trouble to thin out arrivals, but is more reluctant to cancel departures in bad weather cities because those flights can wait on the ground, said Neil Stronach, vice president of operations. The result is occasional long waits.
“We don’t cancel to manage departure banks unless there’s bad weather in the place we’re going,” he said.
ExpressJet, the airline that operates that Continental Express flight, says Syracuse is the closest airport it serves to Newark — so close that Flight 2450 has a hard time getting a space in the stream of airplanes headed for Newark. “Unfortunately, the way the air-traffic-control system is designed, flights from close proximity get unfairly penalized,” said spokeswoman Kristy Nicholas.
Another factor that affects extremely long sitting: Airlines are less likely to cancel flights that move on to other hubs in their systems rather than turn around and go back to the same airport they just left. If a plane is going out and back to the same hub, canceling the trip just impacts those two flights. But if the aircraft is scheduled to move on to numerous cities, canceling that flight could disrupt many more customers. As a result, aircraft that aren’t scheduled for “turns” are more likely to sit and wait long periods before the flight gets canceled. (Unfortunately there’s no way for travelers to get this information about their flight.)
Extreme delays are rare, but the problem escalated dramatically last year, becoming the focus of Congressional hearings and legislation. The number of flights with taxi-out times of more than three hours totaled 1,598 for the first 11 months of 2007, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. (The agency hasn’t released December data yet.) That’s a 23.4% increase over the entire year of 2006, and December 2007 clearly added to the total for 2007 with widespread delays over the holiday season.
It’s important to note that those 1,598 flights are only part of the extreme-delay problem. BTS doesn’t record flights that land and then sit for prolonged periods, or flights that divert to another airport and sit.
What we do know is that of those taxi-out problems for planes waiting to take off, they often are bunched up at a few big hub airports.
ON THE TARMAC
Airlines with highest percentage in 2007 of flights delayed 45 minutes or more
• Atlantic Southeast: 15.1%
• JetBlue: 13.8%
• American: 13.6%
And the lowest …
• Hawaiian: 1.69%
• Frontier: 6.10%
• Southwest: 6.13%
Highest average length of delays
• JetBlue: 67 minutes
• Mesa: 64 minutes
• ExpressJet: 64 minutes
• Atlantic Southeast: 62 minutes
• American: 61 minutes
Lowest average delay
• Frontier: 43 minutes
• Southwest: 48 minutes
• Northwest: 49 minutes
• US Airways: 49 minutes
• Hawaiian: 50 minutes
JFK had 316 flights that waited more than three hours to take off last year after pushing back from a gate, according to BTS data. Newark had 202; Dallas-Fort Worth had 159, and Philadelphia, New York LaGuardia and Chicago’s O’Hare each had 100 or more. Many big airports performed much better, such as Atlanta with only 31, Boston with 20, Detroit with six and Minneapolis with five.
Certain routes out of those problematic airports found themselves more often in taxi-out jail than others. From JFK, 60 of those 316 flights that sat more than three hours were bound for either Los Angeles or San Francisco. Planes flying the other direction didn’t have the problem — not a single flight in Los Angeles or San Francisco waited more than three hours to take off for JFK.
Why? To be sure, there are lots of flights from JFK to LAX and SFO, both heavily traveled routes. But airline officials say they are loath to cancel those high-revenue flights, often full of business travelers. Better to wait it out than try to rebook a big planeload of people.
Other routes with repeated problems: New York LaGuardia-to-Chicago O’Hare had 20 flights sit waiting more than three hours, and 14 in the other direction; Philadelphia-to-O’Hare also had 20 flights with taxi-out times greater than three hours, and five headed from O’Hare to Philadelphia.
Certain airlines also were more willing to wait than cancel. JetBlue Airways customers were the most likely to suffer taxi-out more than three hours, based on the percentage of the airline’s flights that suffered three-hour taxi-out nightmares, followed by Continental and ExpressJet.
JetBlue also had the longest average delay last year, according to FlightStats. When a JetBlue flight was late, it arrived 67 minutes past its scheduled arrival time at the gate on average, according to FlightStats.
JetBlue says JFK, its home base, struggled with lengthy delays last year on stormy days, and delays were exacerbated for flights that departed in the early evening when international flights to Europe were also trying to take off.
Flight-crew and curfew issues can affect JetBlue’s departures, a spokesman noted. Flights destined for airports like Long Beach and San Diego in California, both of which have late-night curfews, can move ahead of other aircraft, leaving others to wait longer, so that the airline doesn’t get fined for curfew violations, spokesman Bryan Baldwin said. “We might prioritize different departures based on a variety of factors,” he said.
JetBlue also says it has shifted its strategy to cancel more flights in advance to reduce long delays rather than trying to operate every trip, no matter how long it takes.
Write to Scott McCartney at email@example.com