Weather foils FAA systems

New technology the Federal Aviation Administration is using to reduce airline

delays is not to blame for the frustrating increase in delays air travelers

experienced last month, FAA Administrator Jane Garvey said Tuesday.

The FAA just can't control the weather, and the fact that the National

Airspace System is operating at capacity isn't helping matters either, Garvey

told the Senate Appropriations Committee's Transportation Subcommittee.

In March, President Clinton and the FAA announced a new initiative that

increases coordination among air traffic controllers, FAA planners and the

airline industry by making use of collaborative decision-making tools to

create daily plans based on updated weather information. New databases were

created to share data on airline schedules and get the most recent National

Weather Service predictions.

Despite the initiative, air travel delays in June totaled 48,448, a

16.5 percent increase over June 1999. Weather-related delays increased more

than total delays, accounting for 79 percent of all delays in June. Delays

caused by outages in air traffic control equipment were down 78.8 percent

to 242, according to the FAA.

The collaborative approach is making a difference, Garvey said.

"Some airlines have informed me that even with the increase in severe

weather days so far this year, our collaborative efforts enabled them to

better plan and execute operations in advance of the severe weather," she

said.

The airlines, controllers and FAA strategic planners start the day with

a clear plan based at the Air Traffic System Command Center in Herndon,

Va. That plan is updated every two hours until 10 p.m., based on updated

weather information from the National Weather Service.

Airlines and the FAA are cooperating on daily plans, but the Transportation

Department needs a unified system for collecting causal data and reporting

a complete picture of the causes of delays and cancellations from pre-gate

departure to arrival, said Kenneth Mead, DOT's inspector general.

Mead discussed the results of an IG audit report on flight delays and

cancellations released July 25. The FAA and Bureau of Transportation Statistics

keep separate records of flight delays and have different methods for determining

what data to collect from airlines and differ on what constitutes a delay,

Mead said.

"Air carriers blame much of the cause of delays on what they see as

an antiquated air traffic control system that has failed to keep pace with

demand. The Federal Aviation Administration points primarily to weather

and flight volume," Mead said. "The lack of consistent and complete data

has only fueled this debate — with the traveling public experiencing the

result of delayed or canceled flights."

Mead suggested a feasible solution would be to create a common language

between the airlines and FAA and an agreed-upon system for tracking the

causes of delays and cancellations.

A "concrete" suggestion came from Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who noted

that even as more flights are added, no new airports are built in the United

States.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) stressed the need for reforms, such as

"highways" in the sky for jets of varying speeds. But technology that helps

controllers get a better picture of the airspace situation is needed first,

he said.

"Over time, new air traffic control system technologies will allow reduced

separation standards and will ease congestion somewhat, but I think we should

beware of regarding technology as a panacea," Shelby said. "Rather, we should

view technology for what it is: a long-term tool to grow capacity on an

incremental basis."

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