November 21, 2011

A departure from the norm, jetport flight delays still happen frequently

A Press Herald analysis finds a number of flights with on-time rates that are sure to frustrate travelers.

By J. Hemmerdinger jhemmerdinger@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Planning to fly in or out of Portland International Jetport over the busy Thanksgiving holiday weekend?

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Travelers at the Portland International Jetport wait in line to pass through security screening on Friday. Delays can worsen around the Thanksgiving and December holidays.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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An air traveler checks flight information at Portland International Jetport on Friday. Flights stick to their schedule at the jetport about 80 percent of the time.

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Pack some patience.

Many of Portland's daily arrivals and departures are late, and many have double-digit cancellation rates, according to an analysis of recent airline and independent on-time data by The Portland Press Herald.

Jetport officials say most of the delays are caused by weather or other conditions outside of their control at other airports. They say about 80 percent of Portland flights are on time.

But there are notable exceptions.

United Continental Airlines flight 4864, for example, a 7:18 p.m. departure to Newark operated by regional airline Colgan Air, arrives on time only 40 percent of the time, according to Continental.com. The flight has an 8 percent cancellation rate.

Airlines list flights as on time if they arrive within 15 minutes of schedule.

Four US Airways evening flights from Portland to New York's LaGuardia airport and Philadelphia had on-time records below 54 percent in September and October. The same flights had cancellation rates between 11 percent and 23 percent. Those numbers come from FlightStats.com, a private company that compiles performance data for airlines and airports.

Delta Air Lines flights to LaGuardia, Air Canada flights to Toronto, United Continental flights to Washington and JetBlue flights to Orlando and New York's Kennedy airport had on-time rates below 67 percent during the period.

Many of the delayed flights are operated by major airlines' regional affiliates, including companies such as Piedmont Airlines and Republic Airlines.

Delays may only worsen with the onset of winter, when storms can force days-long airport closures. Just two weeks ago, passengers on at least four planes were stuck on the tarmac at Hartford's Bradley International Airport for seven hours or more during the season's first snowstorm.

Hours-long delays can be more common than some travelers think.

According to FlightStats, Delta flight 2874 from Portland to LaGuardia had an average delay of 83 minutes in September and October. The flight's on-time rate was 80 percent.

JetBlue flight 609 to JFK had an average delay of 61 minutes and an on-time rate of 67 percent during the period, FlightStats reports.

Air delays can worsen on busier travel days around the Thanksgiving and December holidays, when planes are packed.

Gregory Hughes, the jetport's marketing manager, said roughly 5,000 passengers move through the Portland airport each day on the Friday, Saturday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving. By comparison, the airport processes an average of 3,166 passengers each day during January, one of the slowest months.

Jetport Director Paul Bradbury said many delays in Portland stem from problems at hub airports in other northeastern cities, where storms, crowded air traffic and congestion can cause aircraft to arrive late. Bradbury said delay-prone New York City is the top destination served from Portland.

He said delays compound throughout the day.

"Early in the morning, things run roughly on time. Anything that goes wrong will have a cascading effect," he said. "The snowball builds throughout the day."

And Hughes said airline crews in Portland can turn aircraft around remarkably fast. "I have seen 100-passenger airplanes turned in 20 minutes," he said.

Kate Hanni, an airline passenger advocate and founder of FlyersRights.org, said the public is largely unaware of the extent of delays in the nation's air traffic system. That's because the U.S. Department of Transportation collects on-time statistics only for 16 airlines that have at least 1 percent of domestic passenger revenue.

Two other carriers report voluntarily, but many regional carriers that operate flights under codeshare with larger airlines, including those serving Portland, do not.

On-time statistics for specific flights can often, but not always, be found on airlines' websites, but Hanni said data collection and reporting are not standardized.

"You really have to dig to try to find out the truth. And sometimes the truth is not available," she said. "People would be shocked and would probably find alternative means of transportation" if they realized how frequently some flights are late.

"Who wants to go to the airport and sit for hours and hours?" she said.

Hanni's group has supported recent Department of Transportation rules designed to benefit passengers, including limits on how long passengers can sit in planes on the tarmac and requirements that airlines make taxes and fees more transparent.

FlyersRights.org supports the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, which was written by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. The rights are included in the FAA Reauthorization Bill working its way through congressional committees.

Hanni, who has been an advocate of airline passenger rights since enduring a nine-hour tarmac delay on an American Airlines flight in Austin on Dec. 29, 2006, said the first step to improving delays is collecting more data, which can help regulators understand the scope of the problem.

She also said upgrades are needed to the nation's air traffic systems. "Without infrastructure improvements there will never be less delays. The whole air traffic control system needs to be modernized," she said.

According to the Transportation Department, 84 percent of flights left Portland on time between September 2010 and August 2011, the most recent period for which data is available. Eighty percent of flights arrived on time in the period.

Some months are better than others. In August, only 64.5 percent of jetport arrivals were on time.

Bradbury, the jetport director, attributed the unusually high rate to summer thunderstorms and Hurricane Irene.

He said the jetport has the staff and snow-removal equipment to remain open even during the worst winter snowstorms. The jetport remains open, he said, even when major East Coast hubs shut down.

"Snow delays don't happen in Portland," said Bradbury. "I can't remember the last time we actually closed the airport for snow."

Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or:

jhemmerdinger@mainetoday.com

 

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