Weather Foils FAA Systems

WASHINGTON (07/26/2000) - New technology the U.S. 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, a Democrat from Nevada, who noted that even as more flights are added, no new airports are built in the United States.

Sen. Richard Shelby,a Republican from Alabama, 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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