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THE SAVVY TRAVELER

Passengers Should Expect a Delay on Their Way : Airlines: If your destination this summer is Europe, be prepared for a wait. The skies above European airports are more congested than most freeways.

July 22, 1990|PETER S. GREENBERG

Item: In May, I was a passenger aboard a Lufthansa 747, en route to Frankfurt from Boston. On final approach, we encountered heavy fog at the Frankfurt airport and the pilot elected to land instead at Nurnberg.

An hour later, when the fog cleared, he asked permission to fly from Nurnberg back to Frankfurt. But because he had missed his earlier landing slot, the pilot was told to wait an additional three hours.

Item: One month later I was in Paris attempting to fly the short hop to London. When I arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I held a reservation for a 4 p.m. Air France flight to Heathrow. But the flight was delayed by air-traffic control for 90 minutes (longer than the flight itself).

A 4:30 p.m. flight was scheduled to depart for the London City Airport. I asked the agent if I could get a seat on that flight. Yes, I was told, but it was also delayed by air-traffic control for 90 minutes.

There was a third flight, scheduled to leave at 5 p.m. for London's Gatwick Airport. It was not delayed. I got a seat. At 4:45 p.m. I boarded and at 5 p.m. the pilot announced to the passengers that we would be delayed by 90 minutes.

Item: A Qantas 747-400, with 360 passengers on board, was on a nonstop, extra-long-haul between Singapore and London. The flight had been faced with stronger-than-forecast head winds. Because of this, the pilot realized he was running low on fuel.

As the plane began its final descent into Heathrow, the pilot called air-traffic control. He asked London control if he would be put in a holding pattern over Heathrow. If so, he would divert immediately to Amsterdam. He was advised that no delay was expected, and he continued to fly toward London.

A few minutes later, a controller told him that the traffic situation had changed and Qantas would have to hold for 15 to 20 minutes.

The captain complained that he had been misled, that he didn't have enough fuel. Controllers then told him that if he wanted priority to land, he would have to declare a "fuel emergency."

Luckily for the pilot and his passengers, he did just that. After the plane landed, inspectors discovered that it had only a few minutes of fuel remaining, far less than an acceptable margin of safety.

These air-traffic problems are not isolated ones. Throughout Europe, the skies are more congested than ever before. Flights are being delayed or canceled, passengers are missing their connections and the cost to airlines is staggering.

Consider that flight delays in Europe between 1986 and 1989 nearly doubled. And last year, almost 24% of all international short- and medium-haul European flights were delayed by more than 15 minutes. One airline estimate is that at any given time there are about 100 airliners circling European airports in holding patterns.

The resulting delays cost British Airways--just one of the affected carriers--$58.5 million in 1989. They cost Lufthansa a similar amount. The International Air Transport Assn. estimates the cost of congestion at $5 billion a year.

To make matters worse, air-traffic controllers in Belgium, Greece and France have staged a number of labor actions for higher wages. Already this year, some airlines have had to cancel their flights because of controller strikes.

For many passengers and airlines, flight schedules throughout Europe have become less relevant. Last year, 30% of European flights were delayed in June and July. This year, that number is expected to rise dramatically.

One of the reasons for the continuing congestion is political. European air space is under the sovereignty of 30 separate countries, each of which has different procedures for air-space management.

A contributing factor is the economic liberalization of Eastern and Western Europe, which has created greater demand for air service.

A recent study commissioned by the International Air Transport Assn. concluded that European traffic, already overwhelming some major airports abroad, will triple by the year 2010. By the year 2000, the number of European passengers is expected to double to 500 million per year, up from 267 million in 1988.

"We need a coordinated effort without a lot of national egos involved," said Don Bull, Pan Am's director of flight control. "In the near term, neither air-traffic controllers nor airlines can resolve these problems on their own. We need a team effort to redesign air-traffic management, as well as to modernize and harmonize the system."

At present, airlines such as Pan Am have few choices when it comes to averting control delays. The pilot of a plane departing Frankfurt for London has little choice as to the route or when he or she will be released to take off.

However, on a Frankfurt-New York City flight, Pan Am pilots have a number of route choices. They can fly over the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and then over the Atlantic Ocean. They can fly across southern Belgium. They can fly farther south, over France. Or they can head north over Copenhagen.

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