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Frustrating travel woes may worsen

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on August 27, 2007.

Brett Waller wasn't having a good day.

After several hours of delays at Jacksonville International Airport, Waller received the news no flier wants to hear. His flight was cancelled because of weather.

That's when Waller took a step that most passengers don't proceed to: He stepped over the counter and slapped the airline agent.

Most travelers, of course, don't let their tempers get to the point that, as happened with Waller earlier this summer, they end up being hauled off to jail charged with battery.

But such angst has become more common over this summer's travel season, as planes have become more crowded, delays longer and the fallout from snafus worse.

"There is a frustration with travel compared to several years ago, " said Michael Stewart, spokesman for the Jacksonville Aviation Authority.

Now, as summer turns to fall, travelers might see a slight respite, with the air emptying a bit when vacationers and students head back to office and school. But the aviation industry is barely taking a breath, instead girding its loins for the holiday season, when more-disruptive winter weather will combine with even heavier passenger loads to create chaos.

In short: You thought things were bad the past few months? Well, don't look for them to get better anytime soon.

MORE PEOPLE ARE FLYING

The current state of flying stems from a combination of several factors, some that the industry is trying to fix - although there's rabid disagreement about how - and some the industry sees as features, not bugs.

The most obvious factor: More people flying.

In 2006, 744.6 million people took to the sky, 6 million more than the year before. Locally, looking at figures through July of this year, 3.7 million passengers had passed through Jacksonville International Airport, a 7.7 percent increase from the same period last year.

Those increases are a big boost for an industry that until last year was still struggling with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which sent the industry into a tailspin.

In 2000, the industry as a whole posted a net profit of $2.5 billion, which dropped to a loss of $8.3 billion in 2001 and $11 billion in 2002. The industry climbed out of that hole last year - racking up $3 billion in profit.

As much as higher passenger counts are good for the industry, it can make traveling difficult because of another set of numbers: How many seats are available for those customers.

The difference this year compared to increased passenger counts of the past is that the number of seats has grown much more slowly than the number of passengers.

The shrinking ratio between fliers and seats dates back several years: After the 9/11-related drop in business, it took until July 2004 for passenger counts to come back to previous levels, according to the Air Transport Association, an industry group. It wasn't until almost a year later that the number of available seats hit pre-9/11 levels.

Since 1996, the number of available seats for each mile of air travel has increased 20.5 percent, while the number of passengers has jumped 28 percent.

In Jacksonville, between last year and this year, the 7.7 percent jump in passenger counts generated only 1.44 percent more flights (although some of those were bigger planes.)

"Anyone who has flown this summer has a great appreciation for how stressed the system is, " said Rusty Chapman, manager of the Airports Division in the Federal Aviation Administration's Southern Region.

CAUSE OF THE PROBLEM

And those stresses in the system lead to stresses for passengers. With the skies filled to capacity, there's no room for error, meaning problems can quickly escalate.

When Scott Anderson, vice president of Logan Diving Inc., tried to come home to Jacksonville earlier this month, for example, he was first stuck in Puerto Rico because the crew had worked the maximum it was allowed. That meant he missed his connection in Miami, and the next plane from Miami to Jacksonville didn't have room.

"The way they had it set up, I wouldn't be in Jacksonville until midnight, " after arriving at the San Jose airport at 6:30 a.m., Anderson said.

Through his travel agent, Discount Travel, Anderson ended up booking a flight from Puerto Rico to Orlando instead, from which he drove home.

"This has probably been the worst year I remember, " said Anderson, who flies regularly to oversee marine salvage jobs. "It's been steadily going downhill."

To adjust, Anderson has changed the way he schedules travel, blocking out a day to get from Point A to Point B, rather than, say, just a morning of travel and then an afternoon of meetings.

OUTDATED AIR-TRAFFIC CONTROL

For the situation to get markedly better, though, more wide-reaching changes have to be made. Specifically, say industry experts, the 30-plus-year-old air-traffic control system that routes airplanes through the sky has to be replaced.

Particularly in airports along the East Coast - the New York airports, the Washington, D.C., airports, Atlanta and Charlotte - the number of planes have pushed the system close to its limits. Even when skies are clear, controllers can handle only so many planes, and when weather intervenes, the system simply falters. According to the Department of Transportation, 17 big airports are responsible for 28 percent of delays, as planes circle the sky above major hubs.

"It's not broken, but it's stretched to the breaking point, " said Chapman, the FAA administrator.

The need to fix the system is setting up a major political fight next month, as the FAA goes to Congress to have its funding reauthorized. At the heart of the matter is where the money will come from for the upgrades.

The major airlines are pushing to have general aviation airport users - corporate jets, essentially - pony up more, saying it's unfair that small jets pay only a tenth or so the amount of taxes of an airliner flying the same route. The business aviation community, meanwhile, argues that the congestion in the system is due in part to the airlines' reliance on big hub operations, which the smaller jets bypass.

OUTLOOK NOT SO GOOD

No matter how the funding system is worked out, though, a new system will take years to put into place, meaning that for now, long waits, crowded planes and unforeseen delays are here to stay.

"The quiet that comes after the summer holiday season is over; we may not see it that much this year, " Chapman said. "There's a greater demand for business travellers."

For many fliers, the only thing to do may be to sit back and take the advice of someone like Kevin Coffee, who was stuck in Philadelphia for five hours earlier this month when his flight to Jacksonville was delayed for never-fully-explained reasons.

"I don't worry about it anymore, " Coffee said, sitting at the bar with a group of passengers trading tales of travel woe. "I don't control the situation. There's nothing I can do about it."

timothy.gibbons@jacksonville.com (904) 359-4103



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This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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