LOS ANGELES — About 16 million passengers, up nearly 3% from last year, are expected to jam airports this Labor Day 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, head of the Coalition for Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights and publisher of the website flyersrights.com. 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, and 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."
The airline industry and the Federal Aviation Administration blame weather for many of its 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, one of every seven 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.
Most of the summer's delays and congestion have been a problem for domestic airlines. International flights are up, but major problems have been limited to a few destinations such as London's Heathrow International 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, fell to eighth among the major airports with the most booked tickets so far for Labor Day as more passengers chose 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, topped the list so far for 2007 Labor Day.
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.
Analysts warn of problems arising from a shortage of pilots and air traffic controllers that could hamper moves to improve on-time performance.
Airlines are bracing for the loss of more pilots. The shortage has already led one airline to cancel hundreds of flights. Last month, Northwest was forced to scrap about 10% of its flights after many of its pilots maxed out their flight hours for the month.
Veteran pilots are retiring or being lured away to better-paying jobs with foreign companies while domestic carriers are finding fewer new recruits, many of whom are turning away from starting jobs at regional carriers that pay as little as $20,000 a year.
"It's a serious problem, and it's just the tip of the iceberg," said Capt. John Prater, a 29-year veteran at Continental Airlines and president of the Air Line Pilots Assn.
While most passengers appear to be taking the delays in stride, some have begun adjusting their travel plans. The number of passengers flying between 300 and 500 miles has dropped 30% so far.
Source: Los Angeles Times