July 01, 2007

The summer problem for airliners

Summer is always tough for airlines, with large crowds of travelers to handle while contending with summer storms — airplanes usually don’t fly through thunderstorms, so routes and airports can be shutdown by bad weather.

But this year, with airlines packing planes fuller than ever, even small storms have cascaded into major disruptions for customers. With load factors approaching 90 percent or more on many days, finding available seats when customers miss connections or get stranded by cancellations has been difficult, and some travelers have been stranded for several days.

Carriers say they need to book planes full — and overbook many flights — in order to make profits when oil prices are so high and ticket prices relatively low. But this summer has tested whether airlines have pushed capacity too far.

The number of flights canceled in the first 15 days of June was up a whopping 91 percent compared with the same period last year, and the number of flights that were excessively late — more than 45 minutes — jumped 61 percent, according to FlightStats.com. Overall, 70.7 percent of all U.S. flights arrived on time from June 1 through June 15, compared with 79 percent last year.

“I fly a lot, and I’ve never seen it this bad this systematically. It’s like the Italian train system,” said Nick Abbott, a vice president at networking concern Intelliden Corp. who was stuck in Philadelphia for two days after his flight on US Airways was delayed and then canceled recently.

Northwest Airlines Corp., battling with labor unrest, canceled 352 flights on one recent Saturday and Sunday — more than the carrier canceled in the entire month of June last year, according to FlightStats. With airplanes booked full on a busy summer weekend, grounding 13 percent of flights left many travelers stranded, and problems continued Monday.

Not long ago, Northwest’s pilots union also passed a “no confidence” resolution on management, citing shortages this summer of pilots as well as millions of dollars in executive compensation. Northwest said in a statement that the airline was experiencing crew shortages after storms earlier in the month increased duty time, and was relaxing ticket restrictions to accommodate passengers as quickly as possible.

Read the news release from this article's source at Air travelers face summer challenges By Scott McCartney, The Wall Street Journal

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