Air travelers found to lose billions to delays

There is now a dollar amount to put on the collective rage of U.S. airline passengers over flight delays: $16.7 billion.

That's the annual cost to fliers when planes don't run on time, according to researchers who delivered a report Monday to the Federal Aviation Administration detailing the economic price of domestic flight delays.

The total cost to passengers, airlines and other parts of the economy is $32.9 billion, according to the FAA-commissioned report. More than half that amount comes from the pockets of passengers who lose time waiting for their planes to leave and then spend money scrounging for food and sleeping in hotel rooms while they're stranded, among other costs.

The report is the most comprehensive so far on the true cost of flight delays because of the method it used to calculate the costs, said Mark Hansen, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley who led the study.

Other research, Hansen said, would assume that a plane with 100 passengers that's delayed for 10 minutes costs 1,000 minutes in total. In reality, he said, the ripple effects of that delay can be far worse for passengers, who lose countless more hours when they miss connecting flights.

"We knew that passengers' costs were being underestimated by using the more simplistic approach," said Cynthia Barnhart, interim dean and professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology School of Engineering. "We didn't know the large extent they were being underestimated."

The researchers also calculated that airlines spend $8.3 billion on higher expenses for their crew, fuel and maintenance. Airlines also lose money because they build delays into their schedules, causing them to run fewer flights.

"This report underscores what we have been saying all along, that flight delays drive billions of dollars in added costs, both to our airlines and ultimately to their customers," said James C. May, president and chief executive of the American Transportation Association.

The report focused on data from the year 2007, estimating that air transportation delays put a $4 billion dent in the country's gross domestic product that year.

In 2007, one in four domestic flights arrived more than 15 minutes late. One-third of the delays were attributed to an overburdened air traffic control system. Another third were the result of internal airline problems. Other flights were late simply because an aircraft arrived behind schedule, pushing its following flight past the scheduled departure time.

Last week, the Transportation Department released its statistics on August 2010 flight delays, reporting an overall on-time arrival rate of 81.7 percent, up from 76.7 percent in July, based on data from 18 carriers.

To improve fight schedules, the FAA has pinned its hopes on a dramatic overhaul of aircraft navigation systems, replacing radar with Global Positioning System technology by 2025. The program is called Next Generation, or NextGen, and will cost tens of billions of dollars to deploy.

"The significance of this study is its use of innovative techniques to quantify the total cost of congestion to the aviation industry, the economy and society," said David K. Chin, director of performance analysis and strategy at the FAA's Strategy and Performance Business Unit, in a statement.

Barnhart added that the researchers' mathematical modeling would allow side-by-side comparisons of airline and airport performance.

"When you have some knowledge, it's not a surprise," said Barnhart, who said she's been subjected to her share of flight delays. "Everyone that flies is an expert. They all have their hypotheses about what's going on."

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