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U.S. airline on-time performance stays steady over spring break

Airline on-time performance did not change much during the busy spring break travel period, despite predictions of federal budget cuts causing airport gridlock.

April 08, 2013|By Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times
  • On-time arrival rates improved at Los Angeles International Airport from March 18 to April 1, with flights arriving on time 81% of the time, compared with 76.7% for the same period last year, according to Flightstats.com.2013. Above, a youngster kicks around a soccer ball as a plane descends toward LAX last week.
On-time arrival rates improved at Los Angeles International Airport from… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)

Despite predictions by federal officials that deep budget cuts would lead to long wait times at the nation's airports, airline on-time performance did not change significantly during the busy spring break period.

But the cuts brought about by the so-called sequestration did force government agencies to slash travel spending by as much as 30% in March, lowering revenue for the nation's airlines.

When a budget battle between Congress and the Obama administration boiled over in February, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano predicted that job furloughs and cuts in overtime pay to airport screeners and customs officers would result in gridlock and airport wait times growing by an hour or more.

"Such delays would affect air travel significantly, potentially causing thousands of passengers to miss flights with negative economic consequences at … the local and national levels," she said in a written statement to a congressional panel.

John Pistole, head of the Transportation Security Administration, said such delays would be even longer during peak travel periods such as spring break.

It's unclear whether passengers waited longer to get through TSA screening lines and customs inspections during spring break, but airline operations did not change significantly.

U.S. airlines arrived on time 79.5% of the time from March 18 to April 1, compared with 81.2% in the same period in 2012, according to an analysis by FlightStats, a flight monitoring website.

On-time rates improved at Los Angeles International Airport during the two weeks, with 81% of flights arriving on time 81%, compared with 76.7% for the same period last year, according to Flightstats.

Federal officials said they worked to reduce the effects of sequestration on air travel, adding that a recently approved budget will allow the TSA and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to mitigate further problems.

"U.S. Customs and Border Protection planned in advance to do everything possible to process travelers during the anticipated busy spring break period and therefore was able to successfully mitigate higher than usual delays," said Michael Friel, spokesman for the agency.

But airline travel did suffer some effects from the budget cuts.

Government spending on travel dropped by as much as 30% in March, said Jamie Baker, a JPMorgan analyst. Government travel generates about 3% to 4% of the airline industry's revenues, but Baker said the effect of the budget cuts won't be as severe as calamities such as the Japanese tsunami in 2011 or the respiratory illness outbreak in 2003.

"We've lived through some truly nasty demand shocks, and sequestration just doesn't make the cut, in our opinion," he wrote. "But it still stings."

Airfares based on passenger weight won't fly, experts say

News that the tiny Samoan carrier Samoa Air has begun to charge fares based on the weight of its passengers has some weight-conscience fliers worried that the idea might catch on with other airlines.

"There is no doubt in my mind that this is the concept of the future," said Samoa Air Chief Executive Chris Langton.

But industry experts are not so sure the idea will fly.

"Any airline that tries that, heavy people would not fly that airline," said Jan Brueckner, a UC Irvine economics professor and airline industry expert.

But there are also practical reasons why the idea wouldn't work with major commercial airlines in the U.S., according to industry experts.

First, the longer it takes to board passengers on a plane, the less revenue airlines can squeeze from each plane. Asking each passenger to stand on a scale and listening to the reactions — "No way! Your scale is broken!"— would only slow the boarding process.

Secondly, installing weight scales at already crowded terminals would mean removing ticket counters, kiosks or other fixtures.

"In addition to being outrageous, it would also be a logistical mess," Brueckner said. "I think it's a non-starter."

LAX upgrade to include new room for Delta super VIPs

When Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced last week a $229-million upgrade to Terminal 5 at Los Angeles International Airport, he said the money would double the size of the lobby and pay for new carpeting, new baggage carousels and new facilities for international passengers.

The terminal is dedicated mostly to Delta Air Lines, which is putting $12 million into the modernization project.

What the mayor didn't mention were the fixes planned for Delta Sky Club — the exclusive lounge where VIPs can order a free drink, munch on snacks and watch cable television while waiting for their flights.

Delta officials say they plan to remodel a small, separate room within the lounge where celebrities such as Britney Spears and others can relax without creating a scene.

In other words, Delta will soon have a VIP room for super VIPs.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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