In the game of airport roulette, David Nasaw had just spun the wheel and lost.
His PSA flight, No. 1767, inbound to Los Angeles International from Albuquerque, was scheduled to arrive at 12:53 p.m. It was not until 1:20 p.m., almost a half-hour later, that the first of the passengers hustled off the plane.
"The flight left Albuquerque a half-hour late," shrugged the San Francisco shopping center developer as he rushed toward a rental car counter. "The incoming flight (to Albuquerque) had left San Francisco late. . . . It's very common."
So much so that Nasaw now plans on delays, particularly on the LAX-San Francisco flight he takes each week and for which he allows an extra half-hour. This day, he had pushed back his post-flight business appointments, domino-like, before he left Albuquerque. "I have partners in Los Angeles," he said. "It's an established expectation. We don't expect to see one another on time."
Fears for Connection
Across the airport's massive horseshoe, a United Airlines official tried without much success to allay the trembling apprehensions of a traveler. The woman feared that her delayed flight to Chicago would land after her connecting flight from Chicago to Raleigh, N.C., left the ground.
"All the flights in and out of Chicago are always late," the airline official said, nodding his head assuringly.
About 45 million people are expected to pass through the gates of Los Angeles International this year, leaving or coming back, bound for business trips or long-awaited vacations, or settling in for a small break before boarding another plane to continue a trip. And an increasing number, if the pattern continues, will find themselves ensnared in delays.
Airport and airline officials noted that LAX is hardly the worst offender--delays suffered by passengers in Chicago, New York, Atlanta and other airports make a typical Los Angeles traveler's experiences pale.
Most Delays Brief
Most LAX delays, they said, are brief, and many occur because weather conditions, mechanical problems or air traffic controllers' delays at other airports affect LAX, inextricably bound as it is in the spider web of airline routes that crosses the nation.
Airports in cities with severe weather changes--like Chicago--or airports which serve as "hubs" or connecting bases, for airlines generally have more severe problems, officials said.
"The perception here in Los Angeles . . . is we're very fortunate," said Donald A. Miller, the airport's deputy executive director. "Basically, LAX is not an airport that is identified with excessive delays."
But a glance at the computerized arrival and departure boards that alert visitors at the airport's terminals provides evidence that, while most delays are not excessive, they are commonplace.
Last Tuesday, the day Nasaw arrived in Los Angeles, a check of PSA's flight monitor showed that shortly before noon, one of the 14 listed departures was late. Six of the 14 scheduled arrivals were late, ranging from three minutes for a flight from San Francisco to the half-hour for the Albuquerque flight.
At the United terminal an hour later, five of the 10 listed arrivals were late, their delays ranging from five minutes to more than two hours. Departures were likewise affected, with five of nine taking off late.
Although no overall LAX statistics are available, studies by two California-based airlines show that delays, principally delays attributed to air traffic controllers, have escalated in recent years.
PSA--which in 1986 had 71,248 flights in and out of LAX, more than any other carrier--surveyed delays in April, 1986, and a year later. The study did not break down delays by airport, but instead charted performance of its flights in six states and Baja California.
While mechanical delays had decreased, the airline found, air traffic control delays had substantially increased.
In April, 1986, 13.7% of PSA's flights systemwide were delayed by air traffic controllers for more than 10 minutes. By April, 1987, 19.8% of PSA's flights had delays of more than 10 minutes, an increase of nearly 50%. During the same time period, maintenance delays exceeding 10 minutes dropped from 9.8% to 6.9%.
Rate Going Up
Overall, counting weather and other miscellaneous reasons, PSA's flight delays rose from 24.3% to 28.1% in the year, airlines spokeswoman Margery Craig said.
AirCal, the Orange County-based airline that will merge with American Airlines on July 1, undertook an unrelated survey that showed that 28% of its 1985 flights from Southern California airports were held up by air traffic controllers. Eleven percent of its Bay Area flights were similarly delayed, AirCal spokesman Bob Deuel said.
In December, 1985, AirCal planes were held up by air controllers 790 times; by September, 1986, the figure had grown to 1,258, Deuel said. Overall, in 1985, AirCal flights were delayed for 4,476 hours by air traffic holds. The airline did not measure other types of delays.
Short delays pose no real problems for long-range flights, airline officials said, largely because jets came make up the time in the air.
"Something like a five-minute delay--from the consumer standpoint, it doesn't bother them," said Vince Durocher, Los Angeles director of marketing for Delta Airlines, which recently bought out Western Airlines. "But something over 15 minutes can delay a customer."
Even Short Delays Risky
Airlines that serve relatively short commuter-style runs, such as LAX to San Francisco, say that even short delays can be risky to them. AirCal's flights average 1 hour and six minutes in length, and a 15-minute delay is lengthy in proportion to the total flight time.
"They (passengers) have to consider another airline, or even use the telephone for meetings (that they would have flown to)," said Deuel of AirCal. "Even a 15-minute delay is critical."
But LAX passengers and visitors, like evolving animals, seem to have adapted out of necessity. PSA found that its passenger complaints about delays went down for the first four months of this year, even in the face of increasing air traffic control holds.
The laid-back approach can sometimes prove troublesome at the departure gates, a pair of AirCal customer representatives said the other day.
"Some are so lax that they come in late," one said.
"And say, 'What do you mean it left on time?' " interjected the other.
Many passengers, having learned the hard way, call the airlines in advance to check on an arriving flight's expected touchdown time.
Elaine Kissel of Burbank lamented on Friday that she had not called before traveling to LAX to pick up her grandson. His flight, it turned out, was delayed in Tucson when airport officials there made way for the arrival of Vice President George Bush. Instead of landing at LAX at 11:35 a.m., it landed at 12:35 p.m.