Editor's Note 12/1/2008: As this article is being released, a recession is being officially declared in the United States. Airlines are expected to reduce their capacity by 7-10% over the next 12 months. Some politicians have suggested stimulating the economy with an investment in the country's infrastructure. We think this article is timely because major runway, taxiway and other major airport infrastructure improvements are exactly what is needed to resolve economically ruinous and passenger stressing arrival and departure delays.
If there is one undisputable fact about commercial air travel in the 21st Century, it is this: The financial, ecological and passenger-angst costs of delayed departures, late arrivals and cancelled flights are rapidly becoming intolerably high.
According to the Joint Economic Committee of the House and Senate report "Your Flight Has Been Delayed Again,"
(May 2008) the dollar cost of such domestic flight disruptions topped $40 billion in 2007.
Of this amount, the Committee reported, about $20 billion took the form of direct costs to the airlines; $12 billion was productive time wasted by passengers; and just under $10 billion came from losses suffered by non-airline travel-related businesses such as hotels, motels and restaurants.
The report also noted that airliners idling on the ground unnecessarily consumed 740 million gallons of jet fuel and released more than seven million metric tons of pollutants into the atmosphere.
Appearing within two weeks of the JEC report, a Travel Industry Association survey indicated that millions of Americans are "working around" flight delays and other air-travel impediments by simply staying home.
"The air travel crisis has reached a tipping point," Association CEO Roger Dow said.
Noting that 28 percent of the survey's respondents reported cancelling at least one planned trip within the past year because of delayed flights and other airport hassles, Dow added that "more than 100,000 travelers each day are voting with their wallets" to opt out of flights they would otherwise have taken.
The undisputable nature of the airline flight-delay problem is mirrored by highly disputatious and political arguments over its cause.
The most powerful lobby in the field, a consortium of high-tech aerospace contractors, airline executives and politicians including Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), wants to scrap what Rockefeller calls an "air traffic control system that cannot handle the burdens of today, much less tomorrow" and replace it with a mega-billion investment in largely experimental technology.
Sadly, Rockefeller and his allies conveniently ignore the fact that our current
Air Traffic Control system -- the world's safest -- is handling "the burdens of today" better than ever and seems to be increasing in efficiency at a rate equal, and in some cases faster, than the growth in traffic.
Exempting the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, National Traffic Safety Board statistics show that the annual rate of airliner accidents per million miles flown decreased by over 50 percent -- from .0068 to .0031 -- between 1997 and 2007.
And, for only the second time in American aviation history, there
were zero fatal accidents in 2007 despite record numbers of flights, passengers and hours flown.
The real links in the air-travel chain that "cannot handle the burden" are out-dated, over-capacity airports crippled by the same mid-20th Century mass transit concepts that have pushed many segments of the Interstate Highway System to the brink of obsolescence.
Denver International, at 13 - the nation's youngest major airport, epitomizes this short-sightedness -- it was built with fewer runways and boarding gates than the airport it replaced.
Even Delta Airlines President Richard Anderson, a fervent "dump the current ATC system" advocate, acknowledges that what he calls "tarmac delays" cause an "average 15-20 minute delay in taxi out time on a good day."
Hartsfield-Jackson International was one of the nation's first airports upgraded to Digital Surveillance Radar, and was expanded by the addition of
Runway 10/28 and
Precision Runway Monitor less than two years ago.
Moving approximately 85 million passengers a year on just five runways when airlines (and the authorities who allow it) schedule 50 or more flights to arrive and depart in the same 15-minute window makes ground delays inevitable, predictable, and totally unrelated to ATC issues.
In many airports, fluid movement of aircraft on the ground is also negatively impacted by a shortage of boarding gates and early 20th Century-style taxiways which require arriving aircraft to come to an almost
complete stop -- blocking the runway -- to execute a 90-degree turn to enter the taxiway, which then -- all too typically -- meanders over at least one active runway on its way to the terminal.
The new wraparound taxiway Victor and high-speed taxi strip entry points eliminate that problem
at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, but these state-of-the-art features are uncommon at other major U.S. airports.
If airlines do not show some restraint in scheduling flight after flight after flight to take off and land in the same timeframe, Hartsfield-Jackson is likely to join O'Hare, Newark, and LaGuardia on the short list of
airports with Department of Transportation-mandated caps on flight frequency.
As Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said in recently announcing new rules requiring airlines to more accurately compile and report the extent of time-and-money-burning ground delays, "passengers should know whether it will take as long for their flight to get to the runway as it will to land at their destination."