By David Ho
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON Air travelers frustrated with delays had a lot of company last year: More than a quarter of flights on major airlines arrived late the worst record in five years, the Transportation Department said yesterday.
Planes arrived late 27.4 percent of the time in 2000, 3.5 percentage points worse than the year before and the largest percentage of delays since the department started collecting this kind of data in 1995, according to the department's Air Travel Consumer Report.
Travelers were not happy about it: Air passenger complaints to the department were up 14 percent totaling more than 23,000.
"Passengers are frustrated with the system and they're usually angry with the airlines,'' said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a passenger advocacy group. "But the public is just now coming to realize that government officials have failed to provide the necessary aviation infrastructure to satisfy the travel needs of the public.''
Agreeing with that sentiment, airline and business leaders spent yesterday at an "aviation summit'' calling for more funding for airports, planes and air traffic control systems.
"Government has failed to make critical investments in the air travel system,'' Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said. "It's taking our aviation system down the same path it took California's energy system all while looking for someone else to blame.''
In the past five years, the number of passengers on U.S. airlines increased 27 percent, he said. More than 655 million people traveled on U.S. planes last year, a number expected to hit 1 billion within a decade.
Last month, the Transportation Department's inspector general reported that flight delays rose 58 percent and canceled flights grew by 68 percent in the four years from 1995 and 1999.
The report recommended that the government develop plans to handle the demand, including using new technology and building new runways.
A coalition of airport directors and the heads of major airlines have asked the Bush administration to make runway construction a top federal priority by overhauling the approval process. They said that some proposed runways have been held up by local and federal red tape for up to 30 years, and too few runways means greater delays.
But some airlines have experienced more delays than others.
United Airlines had the worst on-time arrival record of any major U.S. airline in 2000 with nearly 39 percent of its planes pulling up to gates late, the government report found. America West, the most tardy airline in 1999, came in second last year with more than 34 percent of its planes arriving late. Alaska Airlines rounded out the carriers with the worst records.
The inspector general report found that during the first nine months of 2000 the average delay was more than 50 minutes.
Stempler said delays might be even worse than the numbers suggest because airlines have increasingly been including longer wait times sitting on runways in their schedules.
Continental was the most punctual airline of 2000, arriving on time 78 percent of the time. It was followed by Northwest and TWA. The survey does not specify the reasons for flight delays, which might be caused by severe weather, air traffic control decisions, passenger problems or equipment failures.
Leo Mullin, chairman and chief executive of Delta Air Lines, which ranked fourth for on-time arrivals, said that despite the industry's problems, he was optimistic.
"We now have leaders in place that can help us,'' Mullin said. He called Norman Mineta, the new transportation secretary, "a man who really does understand the issues.''
Mineta is scheduled to address the industry conference on Friday, along with Jane Garvey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration. Airport executives and some lawmakers also are expected to participate.
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