Why Are There So Many Flight Delays?

or, When Experts Aren’t

I just finished listening to a woman billed as a “transportation expert” on ABC’s Good Morning America giving her take on why there are so many flight delays these days. Her answer: because the airlines have fewer flights and because they have more occupied seats per flight. Her solution to the problem was that the airlines change their decision-making process to a more passenger-centered approach.

Neither of her explanations have much to do with why there are so many flight delays these days. She was actually answering a very different question: why is flying so uncomfortable these days?

We have airlines with incentives to create peak load problems and an air traffic control system with incentives to eliminate them by spacing out takeoffs and landings to pace them so that they can handle them safely. It’s as simple as that. Since deregulation more than a generation ago airlines have scheduled their flights to suit the preferences of their most profitable customers—business travelers and last minute flyers. That means that all of the airlines leave at roughly the same time to roughly the same places and want to land at roughly the same time from roughly the same places. At popular departure and arrival times that’s more than air traffic control can deal with so air traffic control delays are imposed to reduce the peak problem to what air traffic can accommodate. Result: delays.

My solution to this problem would be to limit the number of departures and arrivals at any given time slot to what air traffic can accommodate safely. Auction the slots to the airlines on an annual basis and let them charge what they need to to recoup the cost of leasing the slot at the auction price.

There will still be occasional horror stories due to the vagaries of weather, conditions, and equipment. But it would be better than it is now.

And the woman’s suggestions that airlines work against their own interests were simply idiotic. Where do they get these people?

There are lots and lots of reasons that air travel is unpleasant. Too many people, small seats, cabin service personnel who wish they were somewhere else, rude people, the list goes on forever. I still find the time and fuel saving “touch and go” takeoff system that was adopted a score of years ago jarring. Just one more darned thing that makes flying unpleasant.

And, as I’ve pointed out before, short haul commercial passenger air travel doesn’t make much sense any more.

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