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Overcrowded, overbooked and overwhelmed

Bad weather, labor woes and lots of travelers have made this a summer of discontent for airline passengers.

By JEAN HELLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 20, 2000


Irene Weiss got her first inkling that something was going wrong with airline service last year when her family started a California vacation, and Delta Air Lines couldn't find its way to San Jose.

Or back.

The Palm Harbor family of six was scheduled to fly to Atlanta, connect to San Jose, then reverse the course home. On the way out, their Delta flight from Atlanta was canceled. Nearly a full day late, they were deposited in San Francisco. Without their luggage. On the way back, their flight to Atlanta was canceled.

"We got to San Jose and back, but it entailed 24 hours of travel out and 24 back," Weiss said. "We were exhausted. Our four-day vacation was cut to two days. It was a nightmare."

This summer the Weiss family went to Alaska.

"On every single leg the airlines were asking people to volunteer to be bumped," she said. "They were paying out a lot of money to get people to get off the airplanes."

For air travelers, this has been the summer of their discontent. Airport overcrowding, airline overbooking, unusually bad weather, labor problems, an antiquated air navigation system and the sheer numbers of people wanting to go somewhere are bringing air travel to its knees.

Everyone knows someone, or is someone, with a horror story about sitting on an airplane for hours under a blazing sun, air conditioning shut down to conserve fuel, awaiting clearance to take off.

Many travelers complain that the airlines make them feel less like customers and more like supplicants, as if they should be grateful to find seats to places they actually want or need to go.

"About a year and a half ago, there was a whole slew of bills to force airlines to adopt passenger bills of rights," said Scott Brenner, spokesman for the U.S. House aviation subcommittee. "They were a good warning signal to airlines that they need to treat people better. The CEOs got the message, but it didn't trickle down. That would take massive retraining and require a huge commitment of resources."

Airline service bottomed out in June when the crush of summer vacation traffic teamed with horrific weather to delay 49,961 flights nationwide, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Conditions eased marginally in July when only 44,401 flights experienced delays.

At 22 major airports that handle about two-thirds of airline passengers, thunderstorms seriously reduced flights for a combined 153 days in July.

The record might not seem too terrible considering there were more than 14-million airline operations in June and nearly 15-million in July. But the FAA figures don't paint the whole picture.

The FAA considers an aircraft's departure to be "on time," if the plane pushes back from the gate within 15 minutes of schedule. It is still considered an on-time departure even if the plane then sits on the taxiway for hours waiting for takeoff clearance.

No traveler is immune

No one is immune from this summer's travel mess. FAA Administrator Jane Garvey has given up trying to get home to New England many summer weekends because she faced so many delays.

Chris Hart, the Hillsborough County commissioner who sits on the board of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, was coming home from Philadelphia this month when he was bumped from his overbooked AirTran flight to Atlanta.

"They put me on the next flight, but we were so late taking off that by the time we got to Atlanta, I was told I had less than 10 minutes to make my connection," Hart said. "They gave me the gate number. . . . I got on the plane. The stewardess came to me and told me I had to get off, that I had the wrong tickets. They had put me on a flight to South Carolina."

When he got off the plane, AirTran sent Hart to the wrong gate again. When he found the right one, he had to wait for hours for the Tampa flight because an airplane had to be flown in from Fort Myers.

This sort of treatment especially irritates Hart because travelers often don't differentiate between airlines and airports. Tampa International Airport officials have worked hard for the facility's reputation as one of the most user-friendly in the world. They hate to envision people talking about terrible experiences in Tampa, when they aren't the airport's fault.

"If the industry has problems, it has to sort that out, but not on the backs of the passengers or the airports," Hart said.

In May, the latest period for which figures are available, TIA ranked ninth-best among the nation's major airports for on-time arrivals with 78.4 percent of its flights touching down on schedule. It ranked third-best for on-time departures, at 83.7 percent, an indication that crews do a good job of cutting turnaround times and getting flights back on schedule.

Those statistics could weaken through the rest of the summer. The Northeast has been hardest hit by turbulent summer weather, and the No. 1 destination out of TIA is New York City.

San Francisco International Airport had the worst record, at 58.4 percent. Nine other airports fell short of 70 percent on-time arrivals.

For the 12 months ending in May, the major airline with the best on-time performance was TWA, but even so, the company met its schedules only 81.7 percent of the time. Northwest was second at 80.7 percent and Southwest, at 78.7 percent, was third.

America West was last, at 66.6 percent.

For the month of May alone, United Airlines managed to get only about half its flights where they were going on time, at 56.6 percent. And United's problems were due to get worse.

Pilots began refusing overtime when their contract expired in April, forcing the airline to cancel 4,800 flights from May through August. They will cancel 2,000 more in September.

United spokesman Joe Hopkins said the airline is hiring 1,300 new pilots. But that isn't going to help in the short term.

"It has been a difficult challenge all summer long, but we will get through it," Hopkins said. "We'll get a new contract, and things will return to normal."

One airline that might be bucking the trend toward irate customers is JetBlue, which began service last February from Kennedy International Airport in New York. JetBlue empowers employees to make decisions to cope with special circumstances and stresses communicating with passengers.

"We want to be sure the customers know everything we know, even when we don't know anything, as we often don't when we're at the mercy of bad weather," said Michael Cashier, JetBlue's manager for airports. "We make announcements every 15 minutes, even if we don't have new information."

If a JetBlue flight is delayed for more than an hour, they roll out free snacks and drinks; a delay of several hours generates heartier fare. If passengers are on hold in a terminal, JetBlue provides television sets and videos to keep children occupied.

"We find if the kids are happy, the parents are happy," Cashier said.

The airline is hearing good things from its passengers.

"I have been making weekly flights on Delta to New York," Don Crotty of New York wrote in a letter to JetBlue. "Their staff is not particularly friendly, the flights are ALWAYS late, and the seats are not wide enough. JetBlue? Great counter help in Tampa! Friendly people. The seats are fantastic. And the flight? Left late, arrived ON TIME. I am a convert."

Add in bad weather . . .

Even the best airlines can't control the weather.

Earlier this month, Mark Eidson, a commercial real-estate executive from St. Petersburg, was scheduled to fly from Tampa to Montreal with a change of planes in Cincinnati. His Delta flight was to leave TIA at 7:10 a.m. At 10:30, it was canceled for weather.

When Eidson finally arrived at the Cincinnati airport, his connection to Montreal was there, but the crew had been diverted to Indianapolis, again because of weather. The next morning, Eidson was put on a flight to LaGuardia in New York, where he transferred to an Air Canada flight to Montreal.

His trip began on a Wednesday morning. His luggage caught up with him late Friday afternoon.

"It was so bad," he recalled, "that they had cots set up at the Cincinnati airport so people could sleep there. At least they had cots."

Delta has its own operations and meteorological staffs to try to predict and react to both weather and traffic problems. But it can't always be done.

"We have hundreds of people in touch constantly with all the places we fly," said Cindi Kurczewski, a Delta spokeswoman in Atlanta. "We identify . . . where we're going to have problems. If we know we're going to have a cancellation and we have enough time, generally at least two hours, we will try to contact people and stop them from starting their travel."

This summer has been particularly difficult.

"It's been a challenge," Kurczewski said. "Some days worse than others."

Weather would cause less trouble if airlines weren't still dependent on an air-traffic control system designed in the 1940s. Planes fly from one ground-based beacon to another, rarely in a straight line. A more sophisticated satellite system could control more aircraft on more routes, easing the crowding. It would take $30-billion a year over the next five years to modernize the existing system, but Congress has appropriated only $3-billion a year.

"We're spending more each year on air traffic management and doubling the funds we commit to airports to help them build more gate capacity," said the aviation subcommittee's Brenner. "We think increased competition and expanded airport capacity will resolve this. It just won't resolve it this year."

Crowded planes, airports

There was a time in the not too distant traveling past when an airline passenger flying coach had some reason to hope the middle seat would be empty. Now the hope is that there will be a seat -- even a middle seat -- available.

Some 670-million passengers will board U.S. airlines this year, about 2.5 times the 250-million who flew before airline deregulation in 1978. Part of it is the nation's prosperous economy. Part of it is the growth of low-fare carriers. As more and more people make reservations, the airlines create more and more flights. But only one new airport has been built in years, at Denver. Older facilities, even those as spacious as TIA, are feeling overburdened.

Sarah Martin was flying home to Charlotte from TIA last month. The weather was stormy.

"When we got to the airport, they were canceling flights all over," Martin said. "It was chaos. USAir said there was a one-hour delay. Then two. Then three. They did let us get off our plane, but the airport was too crowded to turn around. You couldn't get anything to eat. . . . You couldn't find a place to sit. So I just got back on the airplane. It was awful."

Airlines will sell about 80 percent of available seats this summer. Most of the empties will be on flights leaving at unpopular times. And even these planes will fill up further as consumers discover such Web sites as Priceline and Expedia, where people can bid for tickets and airlines accept low offers just to put bodies in seats.

While capacity seating is good economics, it can be terrible for passengers whose flights have been canceled or who have been bumped. In some cases, they could wait days for an available place on an airline going their way.

This is one of a litany of consumer complaints -- from rude employees to erroneous flight and weather information to a lack of communication to irrational decisions -- devoutly maintained.

Last year, United Air Lines and US Airways began programs to put passengers in their seats early for on-time pushbacks. The US Airways program was tougher. A flight's door is closed five minutes before departure, and if you arrive after that, even if the plane is still at the gate, you are out of luck.

No relief was built into the system for connecting passengers victimized by late-arriving flights.

Chiropractor Nicholas St. Hilaire is moving his practice from Burlington, Vt., to the Tampa area. In May, he came to Florida to take his licensing exam.

His US Airways flight from Burlington to Philadelphia sat on the tarmac for an hour after landing because there was no gate available. He got to a gate where he was to board his connection to Tampa with barely minutes to spare. The plane was still there, but the door was closed. A gate attendant, and later a supervisor, refused to help St. Hilaire and a second complaining passenger.

"Finally, somebody went down the ramp and knocked on the plane door," St. Hilaire said. "A flight attendant opened a crack, and finally we were allowed to board.

"Then, when I went to the airport in Tampa for the return trip, US Air said there was no record of me. They finally figured out my return reservation had been canceled because there was no record of me making the incoming connection in Philadelphia."

St. Hilaire said he has developed his own scheme for getting around the airlines.

"I'm kind of sick of them," he said. "They tell you to show up an hour early, and then they're rude. So I've started showing up just 10 minutes in advance because, for some reason, they pay a lot more attention to you when you're running late."

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