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Flight delays down in July despite storms, traffic

But ongoing problems at United cloud the performance gains

SHARE Flight delays down in July despite storms, traffic

WASHINGTON (AP) — It may not be apparent to thousands of annoyed travelers waiting for delayed or canceled flights, but things are getting better this summer.

Flight delays in July were down significantly from June, the Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday.

But, "if you're a passenger who is delayed, these numbers don't mean anything to you," admitted deputy associate administrator Peter Challan.

"If you're a passenger and you're stuck, as I was yesterday, it's very frustrating," added his boss, FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, who was delayed nearly an hour Wednesday as she tried to fly from Dallas to Washington.

The flight delay improvement following a June in which the number of flights arriving late was thousands higher than in June of the previous year.

And the performance gain is clouded by ongoing problems at United Airlines, the nation's largest carrier, where the combination of a dispute with pilots and bad weather has resulted in scores of flights delayed or canceled.

The public has "suffered through a difficult summer and we know it. We wish there were a silver bullet; there is not," said Garvey.

Flight delays nationwide totaled 44,401 in July, down more than 11 percent from June and a 1.7 percent decrease from July of last year, said Challan said.

He cited cooperation between the FAA and the airlines for the improvement, noting that they are working together to share weather data, reroute planes and make earlier decisions on cancellations to improve planning downstream.

Challan was reluctant to discuss the effect of United's problems on overall delays, saying only that "United, clearly, at this time, has additional issues that they're dealing with."

With the current strong economy and the air transport system nearing capacity, many delays or cancellations by such a large airline could put a strain on the other carriers as passengers seek alternate flights during the busy August travel season.

The FAA report covers overall delays but does not break them down by airline. The Transportation Department collects data separately on airlines' on-time performance, but its reports for June and July have not been released yet.

Challan noted that the overall improvement in delays took place despite increased air traffic and much worse weather this July than in the same month last year.

Airlines reported 14,873,580 flights in July, up from 14,726,317 in the same month a year earlier.

There were 153 occasions in July of thunderstorms affecting major airports, up from 99 instances in July 1999, he said. The result was 33,907 weather-related delays in July, up from 33,664 in the same month a year earlier.

With growing air traffic, delays caused by volume were also up, from 2,606 to 4,781.

But there were fewer delays caused by FAA equipment malfunctions, runway problems and other causes such as bomb threats, aircraft emergencies and VIP movements.

The Air Transport Association, the airline trade group, has been vocal in blaming the FAA for this summer's many delays, but airline representatives sought to mute that on Thursday.

"Rhetorical finger-pointing between the ATA, the FAA, Congress . . . is not going to solve the problem," said Tim Rainey of Northwest Airlines.

"It's difficult to move the traffic when you have a line of storms," he said. With all the traffic in the air, it's not possible to reroute everything around the weather, he said.

Rainey and Jay Salter of Continental Airlines praised the FAA for working with them to reduce delays.