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USAir Flight 188 from Washington to Cleveland had a perfect record in November. It was never on time.

The flight, with delays averaging 42 minutes from its scheduled arrival time, was the most notorious of the 59 appearing in the latest monthly federal report on flights that arrive late at least 80 percent of the time, a report that Department of Transportation employees call the list of shame.USAir, which has taken several steps to correct the delays on Flight 188 and on other flights, had some unique problems.

But Flight 188's troubles also illustrate the more common reasons for a sharp increase in air traffic delays last year, despite efforts by airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration to improve performance.

The government reported last week that the number of delays - defined as planes delayed by air traffic controllers for 15 minutes or more - rose 14 percent last year, to 393,000.

To try to solve the problems, the airlines are taking steps like rerouting planes and adjusting departure times.

For instance, USAir recently rescheduled Flight 188's departure time to early afternoon, when there is less congestion, and changed the plane's itinerary before it reaches Washington.

Now the flight arrives on time 77 percent of the time, said Jim Tabor, the USAir executive charged with getting the airline's schedule back on track.

But consumer groups argue that the airlines are not working hard enough.

They say that the late flights are a result of unrealistic scheduling, and that airlines tend to accept the problem as a part of doing business.

They have called for tougher action against carriers with consistently tardy flights.

Two bills have been introduced in Congress relating to airline service.

One bill by Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., would require airlines to tell passengers why a flight is delayed before they board and compensate passengers if a flight is canceled.A similar bill sponsored by Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, would prohibit airlines from canceling flights with less than 24 hours' notice unless they provide alternative service.

USAir flights have been so late so often that the airline could face fines from the Department of Transportation if it does not improve its record soon, a department official said.

The airline has been ranked last in on-time performance among the nation's largest airlines for the past four months, with only 64 percent of its flights arriving on time in November.

The Transportation Department official, Marty Langelan, an economist, said the department gives an airline three months to remedy a chronically late flight before taking action.

No airline has ever been fined.

To be sure, USAir has problems that are unique in the industry.

With nearly 3,000 daily departures, USAir has more flights than any airline in the world except Aeroflot, the Soviet carrier.

Many routes are in the Northeast, where bad weather and congestion can cause frequent delays.

The airline is also still reeling from its August merger with Piedmont Airlines of Winston-Salem, N.C., after having swallowed Pacific Southwest Airlines in 1987.

For several months, labor contracts prohibited the airline from mixing pilots and flight attendants from USAir and Piedmont, complicating the already knotty art of crew scheduling.

But many of USAir's problems are common to the industry.

With fleets expanding, with air traffic on the rise and with only one new airport slated to be built this decade (in Denver), experts warn that all airlines face increasing delays.

While the government said severe weather accounted for more than half the delays last year, experts also cited a shortage of air traffic controllers, occasional computer failures and the growth of hub airports where flights are concentrated. USAir has a hub in Charlotte, N.C.

At such airports, the bunching of flights at certain convenient times frequently leads to delays.

Flight 188, for example, was scheduled for several months to leave Washington at about the same time as six other USAir flights, as well as many other flights.

Langelan at the Transportation Department said the airlines could help guard against late flights by spacing departure times and lengthening the time planes spend on the ground between flights, especially at hub airports.

In what Tabor called ``a bow to reality,' USAir did just that.

It revised its entire schedule last month to improve its performance, adding a total of 120 hours daily to its published flight times.

Tabor said that within an airline, a tug-of-war is often waged between the marketing and operations departments.

``They want to sell seats, and we're trying to run the airline on time,' Tabor said. ``There's a lot of give-and-take.'

More often than not, the marketing department wins. Flights are then bunched during prime hours, creating gridlock in the morning and evening.

Daniel Smith, director of industry and government affairs for the International Airline Passengers Association, said that although the airlines have begun to space their departure times, they are reluctant to give up popular departure slots.


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