The year barely had started when the airline industry predicted 2007 would have more flight delays than the year before — and now nine months into the year, that prediction has become a fact. Airlines' on-time performance rate for the year is 72.23 percent, a 5.19 percent decrease from this time last year, according to figures recently released by Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The nation's largest carriers recorded an overall on-time arrival rate of 69.8 percent in July, compared to 73.7 percent in July 2006. So, what's different about this year? "The problem is that nothing is different,” said Elizabeth Merida, spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association. Merida said an unchanged, outdated air traffic control system is to blame for the increase in flight delays. "The slightest hiccup has an effect in the entire system,” Merida said. She said the Next Generation Air Transport System, which the Federal Aviation Administration wants funded, is the answer to the delay problems. "At the end of the day, we need an overhaul of the entire system,” Merida said. "It isn't going to get any better until we get a new system.” But with an overhaul possibly years away — NextGen is estimated to cost $15 billion to $22 billion by 2025 — the delays will likely get worse year after year, leaving it up to the airlines to find their own solutions for the delays. From rewarding employees for good on-time rates to boarding early, airlines are looking for ways to battle delays. "There are things we can't control, like weather, but I certainly feel there are several steps the airlines can take to improve these numbers,” Southwest Airlines Spokesman Chris Mainz said. The Texas-based airline has two full-time employees dedicated to finding ways to improve the company's on-time rate, Mainz said. He said adjusting flight times and the early departure program, which allows the airlines to leave when everyone is boarded instead of waiting for the actual take-off time, are ways Southwest tries to get passengers to destinations on time. "There are always things we can do internally to alleviate some of the delay,” Mainz said. Delta Air Lines offers cash incentives to its employees for meeting goals in three areas: on-time rate, baggage handling and flight completion. Some Delta employees have earned more than $550 this year for meeting these goals, company spokesman Anthony Black said. Merida said decreasing delays is not only important for airlines on a customer service basis, but also important financially. "For every minute of delay, it is about $66 a minute in direct costs (to the airline),” Merida said. She said delays cost the airline industry $7.7 billion last year. "It really adds up,” she said. Merida said delay minutes could increase by 62 percent between now and 2014. Passengers and airlines are not the only ones affected by flight delays. Airports — the place where all the waiting happens — are often forgotten during the delay conversations, but are just as crowded as the skies. "Delays at airports cause problems for airports because of increased congestion and crowding,” said Greg Principato, president of Airports Council International. "It's not good for the airport, the cities where the airports are located or the travel industry to have unhappy travelers.” Alexis Higgins, spokeswoman for Tulsa International Airport, said flight delays cause crowded restaurants and an even busier terminal. "It does require for us to make sure we're staffed for those occurrences,” she said. Merida said until a new air traffic control system is put in place, fighting delays will be up to the industry. "A lot of things are beyond customers' control,” she said.
Major latenessMost frequently delayed flights: 1. Delta Air Lines flight 1667 from New York JFK to Orlando, Fla. — late 96.77 percent of the time. 2. SkyWest Airlines flight 4020 from Salt Lake City to Memphis, Tenn. — late 96.55 percent of the time. 3. SkyWest Airlines flight 2094 from Birmingham, Ala., to Atlanta — late 96 percent of the time. 4. Delta Air Lines flight 687 from Boston to Atlanta — late 95.83 percent of the time. 5. Atlantic Southeast Airlines flight 4410 from White Plains, N.Y., to Atlanta — late 95.65 percent of the time. Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics