June 27, 2007

Valley air travelers brace for a bumpy ride

Summer travelers, brace yourselves for a long, bumpy ride.

Whether it's computer system glitches, oversold planes or just plain old bad weather, air passengers are facing some of the worst challenges in years when it comes to getting to their destinations on time.

The problems could get worse in the coming days. That's because more than 41 million people nationwide are expected to be on the go from Friday through July 8, with nearly 10.6 million of those coming from the Western states, including Arizona.

Valley residents' tales of woe thus far include everything from lost baggage to canceled flights - and the height of the busy summer travel season isn't even expected to hit until Friday, according to AAA Arizona statistics released Tuesday.

There are many things contributing to the problems.

First, the country's air-traffic system is getting increasingly overloaded as more and more Americans take to the skies. The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that about 760 million people will fly in the U.S. this year, and that number is expected to increase to 1 billion passengers by 2015.

Locally, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport saw a record 41 million people travel through its gates last year. That is expected to jump to as many as 50 million people by 2015.

Exacerbating the problem is that there are simply fewer seats to go around these days. Some carriers have grounded airplanes in their fleet, or held off on the delivery of new aircraft. Others are using their larger jets for overseas routes and opting to fly smaller planes on domestic routes.

And if the flights seem more crowded, it's because they are.

Many airlines are flying planes that are nearly sold out, which makes it difficult to find open seats when passengers miss connections or get stranded due to an unforeseen cancellation.

No carrier has been immune to travel glitches. And with airlines threading the needle between full and oversold, one unexpected problem can have a severe domino effect on passengers throughout the nation.

For example, earlier this month, an antiquated flight-plan computer system that the FAA said was overdue for replacement hit the East Coast hard, causing hundreds of flight delays that were then made worse by inclement weather. In dozens of cases, passengers were stranded after their flights were canceled.

In fact, the number of flights canceled in the first 15 days of June jumped 91 percent compared with the same period last year, and the number of flights that were excessively late, defined as 45 minutes or longer, jumped 61 percent, according to FlightStats.com.

Carriers say they realize that with so many people in the skies, there is little margin for error. But they also say they need to book planes to capacity and, in some cases, overbook flights, in order to make money.

They say their bottom line is dependent on selling seats because ticket prices remain relatively inexpensive while fuel prices are skyrocketing.

Read the news release of this article's source at The Arizona Republic by Christia Gibbons

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