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Airline performance goes from bad to worse

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Northwest Airlines employees help a passenger check in at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport.
MPR Photo/Charlie Knutson

It's a story heard every year, as summer storms and increasing numbers of vacationers snarl air traffic. But the story is even worse this year. 

On-time performance at the nation's top domestic airlines fell to 69 percent in June, down from 75 percent in June 2006, according to flight tracking service FlightStats.com.

Northwest's on-time performance
Northwest's on-time performance has lagged the industry average for most of 2007.
MPR Graphic/Martin Moylan

The number of flights that were excessively late went up, and the number of cancellations more than doubled from almost 9,000 to more than 20,000. 

This isn't news to Los Angeles resident Michael, who didn't want to give his last name. He is a doctor who travels 15 days a month for business. Collecting his bags at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport over the weekend, he says this summer has so far been awful. 

He can't even count the number of hours he's spent waiting for delayed flights.

"Major delays and major baggage loss," says Michael. "Every flight, if I were to round it off I'd say two hours, three hours per flight --  and then searching for my bags."

One surprise is that the Twin Cities airport is having a slightly better summer than most, despite record numbers of travelers.

Northwest's baggage handling record
Northwest's baggage handling has been better than that of most other carriers.
MPR Graphic/Martin Moylan

The beginning of the summer travel season was rocky, with the area's top carrier Northwest Airlines emerging from bankruptcy. The airline cancelled hundreds of flights because of pilot staffing issues. 

Delays and cancellations have now improved. Pat Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, says part of the reason is lucky coincidence. 

Northwest has been steadily cutting back on flights for the last three years. So even with more passengers flying, there are fewer planes coming into and out of the airport overall.    "When you look at more airfield capacity and fewer landings and takeoffs occurring, we're actually in very good shape this summer. We are seeing delays of four minutes or so on average, which is really low," Hogan says.

MSP recently added a fourth runway, so more room and less volume is relatively good news. 

The bad news is that as Northwest continues to recover from bankruptcy, it is expected to add more planes, which will vastly increase delays. 

"We've had a race to the bottom -- who can run an airline with the fewest number of employees."

"We've had a race to the bottom -- who can run an airline with the fewest number of employees. I don't know who won, but I know the consumer lost," says Terry Trippler is a travel analyst with MyVacationPassport.com, a Minneapolis-based travel club. 

Trippler says short-staffing at airlines is the No. 1 reason for this summer's delays and cancellations. 

"We are to the point now where a thunderstorm anywhere messes up traffic everywhere. So the air traffic control system is running at the very edge, the airlines are running with the minimum number of employees," says Trippler. "You put any type of a weather situation in there, you put any type of glitch, and the domino effect hits and we have delays all over the place." 

But some disagree that staffing shortages are behind the poor performance.   "I think it's a convenient argument that many people like to make," says David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the airline industry's main trade group. "I don't find a lot of validity to that."

Castelveter says airlines haven't had much choice but to cut back.  But the real problem, he says, is the outdated radar-based air traffic control system. 

"That system that guides airplanes through the skies was born in the 1930s and 1940s. So even though they've developed new technology it's still a radar-based system, where other parts of the world are using satellite communications," Castelveter says.

Castleveter says the radar-based system means fewer planes in the air and more delays on the ground.

"We are forced into a situation to keep a lot of distance between every airplane that flies, to ensure the highest margins of safety," Castelveter says.

A satellite-based air traffic control system would allow more planes in the sky to fly closer together, even in bad weather. And it would cut the time planes wait on the runway at takeoff and landing. 

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, domestic airlines now handle more than 700 million passengers a year. That number could grow to one billion by 2015.

Estimates are that upgrading will cost between $15 and $22 billion, and take more than a decade to complete.

Industry watchdogs are calling for action. They want Congress to authorize funding for a satellite-based air traffic control system. Legislation has so far failed to pass, but there are plans to reintroduce it next session.