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A summer of discontent for airline passengers

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Where's my flight?
Passengers checking the Northwest Airlines departures board this summer found more cancellations than normal.
Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Steve Goldstein has just about had it with air travel this summer. He's tired of the cancellations, and tired of waiting around at airports because of delays.

Goldstein owns AOC Furniture in Blaine. The company makes office furniture, mostly for the federal government. Goldstein says summer flight problems have cost him business.  

Steve Goldstein
Steve Goldstein is tired of dealing with flight delays and cancellations. He says he's lost business this summer because of poor airline performance.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

A flight delay one month and a cancellation a few months later forced him to miss important meetings with clients, and to lose out on bids.

"When when you're one of five or six vendors bidding on something, if the other five or six vendors are there, and you don't make it,  they're not going to make a special exemption for you to come back in and have all the information given back to you again," said Goldstein. "That's why they hold the conference. And if you're not there, you won't have a second chance. No do-overs in business."

A number of airlines might be wishing they could have a do-over of this summer.

According to federal statistics, the biggest airlines' on-time performance and cancellation rates are at their worst in six years. And this year, Northwest's numbers are worse than the average of the big carriers.  That's according to federal statistics, which only go through June.

But figures capturing more of the summer from the flight data service Flightstats.com show another picture in the Twin Cities.  Northwest and its regional partners handily beat the competition for on-time performance of flights arriving here.  That's despite periodic jumps in Northwest's cancellations. 

On-time performance is at its worst level in years. (*) July 2006 - June 2007 Source: U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
MPR illustration/Bill Catlin

Northwest has blamed the cancellation spikes on a lack of available pilots, bad weather, air traffic congestion, and unexpected maintenance. 

Transportation expert Joe Schwieterman of DePaul University in Chicago says Northwest did well to address its problems by trimming its August schedule and hiring more pilots.  Beyond that, he says the carrier faces the same problems other airlines do.

"It's been a bad summer all around, and there's not enough fingers to point blame at all the problems," says Schwieterman. "But we know part of the problem is beyond the airlines' control -- the air traffic system is now officially at capacity, and there's big pressure in Washington for the FAA to take some bold moves to get out of the problem." 

The FAA is taking steps to update its air traffic control system. Spokesman Tony Molinaro says the FAA is pushing forward with a new satellite system that would relieve airport congestion by allowing more planes to be in the sky at any give time.  

Molinaro says the FAA just awarded a contract Thursday to begin work on the new system.  But he says there are still hurdles.

"It's been a bad summer all around, and there's not enough fingers to point blame at all the problems."

"The problem we have is, our current funding is based on things like ticket prices. And we don't know month to month and year to year what our funding will be, when ticket prices go up and down and fluctuate, and when the amount of people on a plane fluctuates," says Molinaro.

Another issue affecting air travel at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is the closure of a runway for repairs.  The closing happened to coincide with a punishing weather pattern that would've stalled flights on its own. 

The one-two punch cut the airport's capacity in half, resulting in hundreds of cancellations and delays. So, why close the airport in the busy summer season?

Director of airport development Gary Warren says it wasn't a rash decision. Planning started nine years ago.  

MSP on-time arrivals
NWA's flights were more likely to arrive on time than the flights of competitors. Source: FlightStats.com
MPR illustration/Bill Catlin

"This has been a very staged and pragmatic effort to do this, and to slot the project and the time that would allow us to do it as quickly as possible, and also to do it in a time that would allow us to cause the least delays with the airspace," says Warren.

Warren says the timing ensures it won't be too cold for the various procedures that have to be done, and overlaps as little as possible with busy travel times.

Northwest spokesman Roman Blahoski says overall, the runway closure has not been a significant problem. 

Now that the rough weather has passed, Northwest anticipates smooth operations for the busy Labor Day weekend. And Blahoski says August has been relatively free of cancellations. 

"We operated all scheduled flights systemwide, four days this month.  Today, the last day of August, we're forecasting a completion factor systemwide of 99.9 percent, and for the month of August, we're forecasting a completion factor of 99.2 percent at the moment," says Blahoski.

Despite the difficulties this summer, and complaints from people like furniture manufacturer Steve Goldstein, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce says it's not hearing more complaints from member businesses.