WASHINGTON — The record number of delayed and canceled flights in 2007 can partly be blamed on airlines knowingly scheduling more flights than airports had the capacity to handle, according to a report released Wednesday by the Department of Transportation's inspector general.
As an example, Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III told a House aviation subcommittee that Northwest Airlines alone had scheduled 56 departures in a 15-minute window at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, about three times the number of planes that the airport has the capacity to handle. At six of 15 airports he studied, more flights were scheduled than the airport had the capacity to handle in ideal weather conditions.
His report, presented at a hearing on chronic delays, was released on the same day that American Airlines canceled more than 1,000 flights to reinspect its fleet of MD-80 jets.
One in four flights was delayed or canceled last year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. On more than 88,000 flights, affecting about 5.9 million passengers, planes sat on the tarmac for more than an hour -- and often longer -- before takeoff or after landing. Last summer, the number of flight cancellations was 28% higher than in the same period in 2006.
A chorus of committee members called the delays unacceptable, urging both the airlines and the government to do more to reduce delays. Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Long Beach) recounted her own flying horror story from Monday as she waited through several delays while traveling to Washington.
"Public patience is running short," said Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
D.J. Gribben, the Transportation Department's general counsel, acknowledged that there had never been punishment for airlines that schedule more flights than they can possibly fly during busy periods, but he rejected suggestions that the number of flights scheduled during certain periods should be capped.
He said the government was considering increasing fees for airplanes that fly during peak periods and insisted that a market-based approach was needed.
"More needs to be done," he said. "The cause of congestion at our business airports is not a mystery."
James C. May, president of the Air Transport Assn. of America, which represents the major airline companies, said his members hate delays more than anyone else because they cost $9 billion a year and alienate passengers, but he said government-imposed congestion pricing -- charging higher fare for flying at peak times -- had never been tried on a national scale.
"We think it's nothing short of a tax on passengers," he said.
May blamed inefficient air-traffic control for many of the delays. Scovel cited additional factors, including a ripple effect that magnifies a small number of delays across the country. He faulted air-traffic controllers for putting too much space between airplanes on final approach to an airport, thus limiting how many can land per hour.
A record number of air travelers is putting strain on heavily trafficked corridors around New York, Chicago and Atlanta, the inspector general said, noting that the bottleneck at the three major New York airports accounts for more than one-third of all flight delays around the United States.
Because each airport has different reasons for delays, May said he opposed a "hard and fast" timeline for when an airplane needed to return to the gate if it had not taken off, as happened often last year. He called for the government to open military flight lanes to commercial aircraft during holiday travel periods, as President Bush ordered over Thanksgiving.
Travelers can expect problems to continue through the rest of the year, Scovel said, especially if airlines, airports and government officials do not do more to reduce congestion. Even then, he said, important changes in the offing aren't scheduled to take effect until after the busy summer travel season.