On-time performance 2007 – the time of our discontent

As in no other year, 2007 was the time of our discontent at least when it came to getting to the gate on time.

The first inklings of what lay ahead began to fall from the heavens about Valentine’s Day, when the Northeast was hit by a major ice storm, a storm that hurt operations at a number of airlines. But the carrier that garnered most of the attention was discount airline JetBlue. While legitimately lamentable, stories of flyers stranded for hours on the tarmac at New York Kennedy (JFK) assumed proportions of urban legend. They dominated the news.

Out of the chaos of Kennedy came the airline industry’s first Customer Bill of Rights, an in-house deal by JetBlue that compensates passengers, on a sliding scale, for delays or cancellations. JetBlue’s then CEO David Neeleman called the storm, and the carrier’s problems handling it, “a wake-up call.”

There was hope the “wake-up call” would spread through the halls of Congress and be answered by a national, federally mandated Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

As 2007 came to a snowy close, with United Airlines’ operations hit hard by weather, there was still no such law on the books.

The airline industry fought hard to pre-empt a Passenger Bill of Rights, preferring instead to go to what it considered the heart of the issue – fixing the Air Traffic Control mess that regularly besets New York’s three prime airports: LaGuardia (LGA), Kennedy (JFK), and Newark Liberty (EWR).

In concert with the Department of Transportation, the airlines agreed to a two-year cap on flights at Kennedy (either 82 or 83 per) depending on the time of day. During the simmering summer of 2007, carriers scheduled as many as 100 flights per day from JFK. To make sure that flights don’t simply migrate down to Newark, DOT plans limits there too. Far smaller LaGuardia’s flights are already capped.

Will it work? The airlines think so; so does the Bush Administration. Air Traffic Controllers aren’t so sure. Reacting to a part of the plan that would see new take-off patterns “fan out” from nearby Philadelphia (PHL), as well as from Newark, National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Patrick Forrey said, “Controllers do not feel prepared to add this workload to their already overstretched limits.” He criticized DOT and the Federal Aviation Administration for not consulting controllers adequately when formulating the plan.

For the time being, at least until March 15, when new caps are due to click in at Kennedy, flights will march on much as they have for the past year. By springtime, some believe, we should start to see fewer cancellations and delays.

It will be instructive to see how this all plays out. If it works, wonderful. If it doesn’t, expect calls for a Passenger Bill of Rights to reach crescendo, especially during this critical election year.

© Cheapflights Ltd Jerry Chandler