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Problems lining up on runway

Persistent congestion, delays and shortages of key personnel will make air travel hard work well past Labor Day.

August 27, 2007|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

Air travelers haven't seen the end of packed planes, flight delays and mishandled luggage just yet: Labor Day looms.

Starting Wednesday, nearly 16 million passengers, up 2.6% from last year, are expected to jam airports to get away for the long holiday weekend, capping the worst season for air travelers in recent memory.

"If summer so far is any indication, it's going to be a mess," said Kate Hanni, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights.

The nation's highways are expected to be no less jammed. The Automobile Club of Southern California expects a record 4.1 million Californians to hit the road.

But if you thought that the end of summer vacation and the start of school would signal the end of torment for airline passengers, think again. More ordeals await travelers in the months ahead.

New airlines are adding planes, which may lead to more flights and cheaper fares. With that come more delays, more crowds, more frustration. Pilots are in short supply and air traffic controllers are retiring at a record pace, trends that could make matters worse.

"Any way you look at it, it's bad," said Lance Sherry, executive director of the Center for Air Transportation Systems Research at George Mason University. "If people don't get fed up with air travel and take other forms of transportation, then there is no light at the end of the tunnel."

At Los Angeles International Airport last week, Lawrence Bailey stepped off a flight that departed Miami four hours late because of a mechanical problem. Passengers had to switch planes before taking off.

It was par for the course for Bailey, a Los Angeles resident who travels at least once a week as a divisional sales manager for a large bank he declined to name. He estimates that at least half of the flights he's taken so far this year have been late 45 minutes or more.

"I don't like it, but I'm used to it," Bailey said. "I have no choice. I have to fly for work."

The airline industry and the Federal Aviation Administration blame weather for many of the delays, but analysts say summer storms in the East and Midwest only tipped a transportation system that was already teetering.

During the first six months of 2007, nearly a quarter of all flights were delayed, the number of mishandled baggage items jumped 25% and complaints climbed nearly 50%. The data were the worst since the federal government began keeping track in 1995.

And these delays are no longer a 15-to-20-minute hassle.

From June 1 to Aug. 15, 1 of every 7 flights, or nearly 200,000 in all, was delayed 45 minutes or more, according to FlightStats, an online flight tracking service. Such "excessive delays" are up 36% from a year ago.

But so far, low airfares are keeping many passengers from walking off. Summer fares are down 2% overall compared with last year, and in some markets, fares have dropped as much as 30%, according to Farecast.com.

"It was painful to fly in terms of delays, but in terms of the pocketbook it wasn't too bad," said Farecast.com spokesman Nick Leahy.

The summer's delays and congestion have been a problem mostly for domestic airlines. International flights are up, but major problems have been limited to a few destinations such as London's Heathrow Airport.

There is also a silver lining for Southern California travelers flying during the Labor Day holiday. LAX might not get as busy as last year, travel site Orbitz said.

LAX, which was the nation's busiest over Labor Day 2006, has fallen to eighth among major airports in tickets booked so far for this Labor Day weekend. More passengers are choosing to fly out of nearby airports in Burbank, Long Beach and Orange County.

Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, which has posted the worst delays this summer, tops the list for Labor Day this year.

For the summer, LAX also had fewer flight delays than airports in the Midwest and on the East Coast, where severe storms have wreaked havoc on air travel.

In an unrelated incident this month, a computer glitch at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency kept thousands of international travelers stuck at the airport.

Although LAX has been less congested, travelers here have not been immune to the misery of flying. Some of the most delayed flights end at LAX, including a Delta Airlines flight from New York's John F. Kennedy airport that was never on time during the month of June.

"It might not start there, but in the end LAX is a recipient of the delays," said Joe Brancatelli, editor and publisher of online business travel website JoeSentMe.

The recent surge in delays can be traced back to the Sept. 11 attacks, which grounded air travel and sent U.S. carriers into a tailspin. The industry lost billions of dollars and some companies were pushed into bankruptcy.

In response, airlines slashed their workforces, cut pay and grounded airplanes. When air travel began to recover, major airlines changed the way they operated, flying smaller planes to fewer and larger airports.

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