Once upon a time, an airline flight was an eagerly anticipated adventure. You bought your ticket, checked your bags, were welcomed on board by a smiling, attractive stewardess who offered you a pillow and blanket, and were quickly whisked into the clouds to marvel at the speed and convenience while you nursed a complimentary drink and stared at the tiny cars and homes below.
It was not a fairy tale. It really happened.
Try telling that to William Hedgpeth, eastern sales director of the Anaheim Visitor and Convention Bureau, who plodded through a two-hour queue at the United Airlines ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport last March, only to have his flight to Washington canceled.
Packs Extra Clothes
Or talk to Terry Rozdolsky, a Chicago salesman, who now flies to business appointments a day early and packs extra clothes to avoid a replay of the time he found himself stranded in New Jersey for three days with only one shirt.
And speak to Houston executive Nancy Velasquez, who routinely lugs a library of cassettes and at least two books with her on business flights to pass the inevitable delays, and who dismisses Continental Airlines as "one piece of dirt" for losing her bags for three weeks and, she says, routinely subjecting her to insults and indignities.
"It's like taking the bus 15 years ago," complained Pamela Taylor, an advertising saleswoman from Palo Alto, Calif., as she shuttled last week between Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport, the two busiest airports in the world.
The Aura Is Gone
"The aura of flying is gone," she said. "The planes are dirty. There's no longer a feeling of pampering. You're herded on and herded off. It's much more cattle-like."
Fares have never been lower, destinations more diverse or passengers more plentiful--up from 260 million in 1978 when the industry was first deregulated to about 415 million last year. But the more Americans fly, the less they seem to like it. Today's frequent fliers have become frequent whiners, bedeviled by crowds in the terminals, in the cabins and on the tarmac that have led to unprecedented delays and stirred new, possibly exaggerated, fears of midair collisions.
Going by air is still generally faster and easier than the alternatives, but to many in our jet-jaded world it does not seem as fast or easy as it once was or should be. Airports are hassles; passengers are grumpy, and crews, their raises and staffing levels chopped thanks to cut-rate fares and cutthroat competition, are no longer solicitous. Overbooking is chronic; businessmen cannot count on the early shuttle to get them to their morning meeting on time, and carriers no longer routinely pick up the hotel tab when passengers miss connections and are stranded in some far-flung locale.
Just as everybody seems to have a favorite airline nightmare to recount, everybody also seems to have a favorite congestion scapegoat. Passengers say airlines have grown fat, complacent and greedy, cutting corners and services while publishing phony timetables they know they cannot keep. The airlines deny it and say the federal government is to blame for failing to hire an adequate force of air traffic controllers and for trying to trim the federal deficit by blocking the release of $5 billion in a special airport improvement and expansions fund.
James Burnett, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, charges that the nation's air traffic system is overtaxed, and he has urged the Federal Aviation Administration to restrict summer traffic in the skies. But the FAA calls such suggestions needlessly alarmist and insists that the skies have never been safer.
The agency says saturated peak-hour schedules and bad weather force it to meter the flow of air traffic and to hold many planes on the ground and out of harm's way. A recent rise in the tally of airliner near-misses is the result mostly of improved reporting procedures, FAA officials argue, and the vast majority of incidents involve light planes flying under visual flight rules that avoid controller scrutiny.
There is no doubt that the crowding problem is real, but determining its scope is as difficult as pinpointing responsibility. A recent Transportation Department survey concluded that delays of at least 15 minutes for flights at the nation's 22 busiest airports had soared an average of 8.7% from January through April over the corresponding period of 1986, with Atlanta logging 74 delays per 1,000 landings or takeoffs to win the early 1987 tardiness sweepstakes. Officials say Atlanta usually does much better but suffered through an unusually horrendous winter.
Only Part of Story
However, the numbers tell just part of the story, reflecting only delays for air traffic control because of bad weather or to avert airborne congestion. They do not include holds ordered by the airlines themselves for maintenance, crew shortages, baggage and food-loading glitches, late connections or other problems.
Pressed by a record number of passenger complaints, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole on Thursday proposed new consumer protection rules that would force airlines to disclose potentially embarrassing data on their own flight delays, cancellations and lost luggage. The regulations would also threaten airlines with fines for failing to meet on-time performance standards.
And, despite longstanding assertions that the current air controller corps is adequate, Dole on Wednesday admitted that Department of Transportation projections of traffic growth had been too low and asked congressional leaders to approve the hiring of 955 new controllers, a move that would raise their numbers to 15,800 by fall of 1988.
Congress, which kicked off the new era in air travel during the Jimmy Carter Administration by removing federal controls on routes and fares, is talking about re-regulation of some aspects of the industry if things do not improve. Lawmakers fly a lot, so the congressional concern is as much personal as political.
Rare is the Capitol Hill veteran who does not have a tale of air delay terror. "I can't walk onto the House floor without having members pounce on me and tell me about their horror stories," says Pennsylvania Republican Bud Shuster, a senior member of a House aviation oversight panel.
In 1985, former South Dakota Sen. James Abourezk, a Democrat, sued New York Air for false imprisonment after it refused to let him off one of its planes held on the tarmac of Washington's National Airport for three hours. The $200,000 case against the airline, since absorbed into Continental Airlines, is still pending.
And Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), relating his frustrations to a group of airport executives earlier this year, coined a new verb that has caught on in aviation circles: "tarmacking." As explained by an aide, tarmacking is the increasingly common act of sitting on an airplane that has pulled away from its gate but has not taken off or moved down the runway.
The air traffic glut has indeed inspired its own, often oxymoronic, lingo. Airlines and transportation officials now talk of "scheduled delays." Airport purgatory, the holding area where arriving aircraft are sent to wait when other planes are still occupying their gates, has become known as "the penalty box."
To some extent, the current crisis reflects the success of deregulation. Taylor, the Palo Alto saleswoman, is right when she likens airplanes to buses. Competition has driven air fares so low that it is not only faster to take a plane than a bus or a train, but also in some cases cheaper. Airline Economics, a Washington consulting firm, said about 90% of all airline passengers today are paying discount fares, up from only 33% in 1978 when deregulation was in its infancy.
Air transportation is awash in egalitarianism, as more and more people find that they too can afford a mode of travel once largely confined to businessmen or the well-to-do. As commentator George Will noted wryly last Sunday on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley": "If the lower orders would go back to the bus, we could all fly in comfort, but they won't."
Planes are taking off fuller, averaging 60% to 65% loads, whereas a decade ago only about 50% of seats were occupied. There are more planes in the air and more than 100 airlines running them, nearly triple the pre-deregulation numbers. That, in turn, has led to fierce competition and has sent carriers scrambling to cut costs and maximize efficient use of their fleets and staffs.
Enter what is known as the hub-and-spoke system, a transportation scheme first developed by the railroads in the 19th Century but only adapted to the jet age since deregulation. Under the scheme, most airlines establish a series of major connection points--called hubs--and route most flights from smaller cities--the ends of the spokes--through them. For example, United Airlines has major hubs in Chicago, Denver, San Francisco and Washington, and Delta, recently merged with Western Airlines, has established key hubs in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas and Salt Lake City.
Hubs enable an airline to vastly expand destination options for its customers, increasing the likelihood that passengers will stick with one carrier rather than switch to another at a connecting point. But it also puts irregular strains on the air traffic system because carriers schedule their flights in waves--refered to in industry parlance as "banks"--during which planes from a variety of destinations descend on a hub in a short period and then leave in a similar compressed time frame--enabling passengers to quickly switch planes and be on their way.
"We have to have connecting banks," explained Ian Bamber, United's chief scheduler. "The key to making money in airlines today is frequency. You have to be able to bring as many people from small cities to big cities as possible."
Delta, the largest carrier at Atlanta, has 11 such banks during the day. A typical one is scheduled to begin at 10:41 a.m. with the arrival of a DC-8 from Fort Lauderdale. Over the next half hour, another 36 flights from Detroit, Washington, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Boston and a variety of other cities will also come in. During the same time, not a single Delta flight is scheduled to leave.
Wave of Departures
Passengers transfer to their connecting flights, and then at 11:46 a.m. the departure half of the bank begins with the same planes scheduled to leave for New York, San Juan, Miami, Los Angeles and many other cities over a 26-minute period during which no arrivals are scheduled.
If the weather is good and there are no significant maintenance or other problems, the system, in theory, should work like a charm. But if anything goes wrong--and it frequently does--carefully crafted timetables topple like a row of dominoes. "Four years ago a thunderstorm in Charlotte (a new Piedmont Airlines hub) might have created 20 delays," said William Pollard, director of the FAA's Great Lakes Region, headquartered in Chicago. "Now it could create hundreds of delays."
Since most airlines keep their fleets running from dawn until late in the night, miscues in the morning snowball through the day, knocking schedules hopelessly out of kilter. "When you get into the afternoon hours and the sins of the day begin to catch up on you, you start to see a gradual deterioration of the scheme," said Michael Bell, manager of Delta's domestic schedules division.
Intense Peaks of Activity
The hubbing concept often throws another monkey wrench into the system, alternating long periods of dead time on airport runways with short, intense peaks of activity that cannot be accommodated on schedule.
Atlanta's Hartsfield, with two of its four parallel runways designated for landings, was built to accommodate 84 arrivals an hour. But FAA safety standards break that figure down into a maximum of 21 arrivals every 15 minutes. Now, only 50 arrivals are scheduled during the 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. rush hour each morning, a number significantly less than hourly capacity. But only one of those flights is scheduled to land between 7 and 7:30, whereas 19 are supposed to arrive in the next quarter-hour and 30 should arrive in the final quarter-hour--a concentration that would mandate delays if every plane showed up on time.
"You could add 1,000 controllers here and 20 new computers, and you're still not going to change that 21 figure," said Jack Barker, spokesman for the FAA's Atlanta-based Southern Region office.
Dole's emergency request for more controllers, although welcomed by many agency critics, surprised others in the aviation field because federal officials had long maintained that adding personnel would do little to alleviate delays until more airports were built or expanded to accommodate increased traffic. And the FAA said procedures already in place ensured safety by simply forcing planes to stay on the ground until the skyways could safely accommodate them--in effect, transferring jams from the sky to the tarmac.
Gone are the days when aircraft stacked up over their destinations waiting for clearance to land. Instead, a sophisticated operation known as flow control is used to minimize the time an aircraft spends aloft. Computers based in the FAA's Washington headquarters work nonstop analyzing weather data, flight schedules, airport capacity and other information to meter the safe entry of aircraft into skies across the country.
Flow control computers not only advise controllers to slow down the pace of takeoffs at a particular airport or of aircraft headed for crowded sky lanes, they also project delays well in advance and advise individual airlines four hours in advance of scheduled departures what preprogrammed delays will be. For example, at 2:06 p.m. Tuesday a printer in the Atlanta airport was tapping out the news that a Chicago-bound flight scheduled to depart at 6:31 p.m. should be held until 6:59 p.m.
Such procedures have led to the increasingly common, and unnerving, phenomenon of seeing a plane fill with passengers only to sit at the gate or move to the tarmac for minutes or sometimes hours. Airlines frequently know that the delays are coming well ahead of time but do not notify passengers before they get on the plane or let them get off once the hold is announced. The reason, carriers contend, is that a hole might develop in the traffic pattern and controllers could send the word to taxi out earlier than expected.
Skeptics see a much more sinister rationale. "They (the airlines) don't say anything because they don't want people to say, 'Give me my ticket back,' " one FAA official says.
John Braden, the public relations director for Atlanta's Hartsfield, says airlines are usually honest with passengers about delays, but occasionally he hears some incredible whoppers. "I've been on flights where the pilot has told outrageous lies about why the delay, and being in the industry I know it is a lie," Braden said.
'Don't Always Tell the Truth'
"Probably the delay is caused because they didn't cater the airline properly at the point it left from, or before he (the pilot) left he pulled the wrong lever and dumped all his hydraulic fluid on the apron or something like that. But they don't always tell the truth."
Delays and other problems have made cynics of passengers who often seem unwilling to believe the most plausible of excuses. Although no carrier is immune from delays or the customer wrath they foster, government statistics and interviews at a wide array of airports single out Continental and Eastern--subsidiaries of the rapidly expanding Texas Air Corp., a budget flying pioneer--for a special degree of animosity.
Houston businesswoman Jodi Kessler said Continental flights she has taken are consistently delayed and the employees are rude. Once in Houston, Kessler said, she and two other passengers were verbally abused by a Continental baggage claim employee who refused to believe that their luggage had not popped out on the carrousel. "We were treated like we were lying," Kessler said. "We had to rant and rave to finally get our bags. They were not put out."
Worst Held to Be Over
Officials of Continental and Eastern acknowledge that they have had problems consolidating work forces and fleets in the wake of their recent corporate merger, but they say the worst is over and point to continued heavy ticket demand as a vote of customer confidence.
FAA officials say the recent consolidation of Northwest and Republic airlines also confused passengers as the two Minneapolis-based carriers had trouble meshing personnel, computer reservations systems and baggage handling facilities. On the other hand, the marriage of Delta and Western seems to have come off with few problems, with the airline consistently registering at the bottom of the FAA's complaint file.
Carriers deny callous behavior and insist that they are getting a bum rap about bad scheduling. "Scheduling is not the subject of some airline executives trying to figure out a way to delay people," said Phil Bakes, president of Eastern Airlines. "It is driven very much by consumer demands and by competition. People like to leave in the afternoon. They like to leave in the morning."
Tinkering With Schedules
Still, Eastern and more than a dozen other major carriers have begun to tinker with their schedules in concert, moving flights back or forth a few minutes, to even the flow of activity at major airports. The changes, arranged after the Transportation Department waived antitrust rules forbidding carriers to engage in common scheduling practices, are taking effect this month.
Airline officials say the benefits of rescheduling outweigh the risks of losing customers to a competitor with a schedule that looks slightly more convenient on paper. "It's very costly to run a late airline," United's Bamber said. "When planes are late, they get out of sequence, crews misconnect, service schedules are harder to keep. There is more gas used, more manpower needed to ferry bags. Late airplanes can also screw up new automated bag-transfer systems."
Chronic delays ripple through the airport. Lines get backed up at ticket booths, telephones and taxi stands. "When flights are delayed it's a hassle because you never know when people are going to come and pick up their cars," said an attendant at a rental car booth at Chicago's O'Hare. "People are crabby and scream at you because they've been delayed for hours."
Others profit from the mess. Flight delays mean more money for Ramona Merced, who operates an O'Hare popcorn stand. "When they start lining up, I start popping," Merced said.
Remigio Rogge, who tends one of the airport's bars, also sees business soar when aircraft do not. "People have nothing to do but drink and drink and drink," he said. "Delays depend on weather. If it's foggy or snowing, we get lots of business."
The FAA, incidentally, says Rogge is right. Nearly 70% of controller-ordered delays are caused by bad weather, sometimes hundreds of miles from the point of origin of a flight, the agency says. Under flow control procedures, flights are often held to compensate for downrange weather problems even though conditions may be perfect for takeoff.
Since weather cannot be controlled, that statistic also indicates how difficult it is going to be to smooth out logjams in the nation's air transit system, no matter what the carriers or government does. "Things don't look very good for the next few years in terms of solving the inconvenience factor," says Charles M. Barclay, executive vice president of the American Assn. of Airport Executives. "The delays at times are going to be in the system because so many people want to use the system."
Industry officials say the ultimate answer to airport congestion is more and better airports equipped with advanced instrument landing systems that can reduce, though not eliminate, weather-related dysfunctions. Predicting that the commercial air passenger load will increase 85% by the turn of the century, FAA Administrator Donald D. Engen recently sent letters to 10 governors and 14 mayors of major cities, urging more airport expansion.
One problem, critics note, is that Congress and the White House, struggling to cope with bulging budget deficits, have refused to release money earmarked for such projects. Airline ticket prices include an 8% tax that goes into a special Airport Improvement Fund. The balance in that fund has ballooned to $5.7 billion, with approximately $100 million more building up each month.
With significant improvements nowhere in sight, veteran passengers long ago began adjusting flying routines, often at considerable expense. Ron van Wey, a Texas salesman, has quit trying to catch breakfast flights to make morning meetings and makes it a rule to never schedule any business less than four hours after he is scheduled to arrive someplace. "If I have a 9 a.m. appointment, I will fly in the night before," he said. "This is very costly to the company. They have to pay extra for a motel room and meals just to assure making it to the appointment."
Passengers also have devised new ways to pass the time when stuck in a terminal. Steven Halbrich, a product manager for a North Carolina panty hose maker, often can be found in the airport video game parlor. "I've begun to hate flying," said Halbrich as he punched the controls on Kung-fu Master while killing time at O'Hare recently. "I used to think business trips were exciting, but now I spend so much time in airports or waiting on runways."
In fact, some travelers have come to take flight delays for granted--sometimes with unfortunate consequences. Diane DelPizzo, an art student from Middletown, N.Y., recently found herself stuck at the Newark airport when she arrived for her Miami-bound flight four minutes late, only to find the plane had left precisely on time. "It's so aggravating that an airline the size of Continental doesn't have another flight to Miami until tomorrow," she moaned, with a complaint that probably would not get her much sympathy from other travelers or airline workers. "They could have held the flight at least four minutes."
Also contributing to this story were staff writers Robert E. Dallos in New York, Cathleen Decker in Los Angeles, Bob Drogin in Newark and Penny Pagano in Washington, and researchers Dallas Jamison in Denver, Norma Kaufman in San Francisco, Wendy Leopold in Chicago, Lorna Nones in Miami, Rhona Schwartz in Houston and Edith Stanley in Atlanta.