WASHINGTON -- Flight delays are down 21 percent this year and, notwithstanding this week's early winter storm, good weather is the main reason.
The Federal Aviation Administration considers a flight delayed if it takes off or lands at least 15 minutes later than scheduled because of problems in the air traffic system -- mostly weather and congestion. Through the first 11 months of the year, delays fell to 263,197 from 332,562 in 2001.
Weather is responsible for about two-thirds of all delays.
While the good weather was mainly responsible for the improvement, FAA officials also credited a project begun in the delay-ridden summer of 1999 to improve air traffic procedures and use new technology.
"We're getting more experienced," FAA spokesman William Shumann said. "The entire FAA air traffic system and the airlines and other users are doing a better job of managing delays due to weather."
Doesn't include Sept. 11
A comparison for just the first eight months of each year shows that delays fell by 32 percent in 2002. That time frame does not include the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the congestion that followed as the aviation system struggled to return to capacity.
Helping ease air traffic this year was a 7.9 percent decline in scheduled flights through November 2002.
David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said the decline in delays is good news but that air traffic control is just one part of an aviation system that needs to be improved. "More and better-utilized runways would go a long way in reducing delays," he said.
The FAA's survey includes all scheduled flights -- from airliners to corporate jets -- in the United States and Canada. The survey does not measure delays caused by an airline, such as engine trouble.
A separate survey by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows that in the first eight months of this year, late arrivals fell by 24 percent and late departures by 28 percent, compared with January-October in 2001. These statistics measure 10 major airlines.
FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said this week that more improvements in the air traffic control system as well as four new runways opening next year in some of the nation's busiest airports -- Denver, Houston, Miami and Orlando, Fla. -- will further reduce delays.
Among the improvements
Air traffic controllers are using software that lets them select better routes for aircraft by projecting their flight paths farther into the future, Shumann said.
A software program helps feed planes into terminal areas more efficiently. It's been introduced at major airports in Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis-St. Paul and San Francisco, Blakey said.
A new information system in Atlanta allows controllers to better route planes around bad weather, Shumann said.
The FAA also has changed flight routes to eliminate 20 areas that cause traffic jams in the air, Shumann said.
"We've learned that every little increment helps over time," Shumann said. "We keep looking for ways to tweak the system."