Unfriendly Skies: Can the U.S. Air Transportation System Be Fixed?

Posted: May 19, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

George Donohue
George Donohue, director of Mason’s Center for Air Transportation Systems Research, is coauthor of a new book titled “Terminal Chaos: Why U.S. Air Travel Is Broken and How to Fix It.”

By James Greif

Last year, American passengers waited for a total of 284.5 million hours — approximately 32,477 years — in flight delays. As the busy travel season approaches this summer, passengers may have to wait even longer to get to their destination. How did America’s airports become so congested, and what can be done to alleviate the backups?

Researchers at Mason’s Center for Air Transportation Systems Research have been analyzing this problem, which has been brewing for several decades.

“Commercial flying in the United States is often an abysmal experience, and our research says that it is only going to get worse,” says George Donohue, director of the center within the Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering. “Passengers are frustrated in their inability to have a predictable, comfortable trip.”

Terminal Chaos cover

In the new book, “Terminal Chaos: Why U.S. Air Travel Is Broken and How to Fix It,” Donohue and visiting research fellow Russell Shaver analyze the causes of the current air transportation problem, but also suggest solutions that could put the broken system on the path to recovery. The book is published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Donohue and Shaver state that the most serious problem is overscheduling of flights at key airports, producing delays and flight cancellations that degrade the traveling experience systemwide.

Before joining Mason, Donohue served as acquisition executive and head of research and development at the Federal Aviation Administration. While at the FAA he worked on implementing technology to help alleviate the flight delay problem. However, after continuing to study the problem at Mason using computer models, he discovered that technology alone will do little or nothing to relieve delays.

“Many of the actions that need to be taken to relieve flight delays lie outside of the technical community. Congress and the Department of Transportation need to understand what is causing these problems, and the public needs to push them to take action so that we start providing a predictable and safe transportation system,” says Donohue.

Inconvenient and Unsafe

While flight delays are annoying and inconvenient, there are also serious safety implications to the overscheduling of flights. Research conducted at the center found there is a high correlation between safety issues and overcrowded flight schedules.

“Our research has shown that there is a loss of the necessary aircraft separation when the schedules are congested,” Donohue says. “The tighter the schedule, the less safe the air transportation system will be.”

Donohue explains that when airplanes are overscheduled at an airport, they are trying to land at a higher rate than the runway can accept. This puts a tremendous pressure on the controllers to keep the delays down while still keeping the planes at a safe distance from each other. Since airplanes circling an airport while waiting to land have been a cause of accidents in the past, air traffic controllers want to get those planes down on the runway to avoid collisions in the air.

Revolt of the Flying Public

“Terminal Chaos” examines the “winners and losers” of the current air transportation system. Out of all the players – airlines, airports, passengers, air traffic controllers, manufacturers, the travel industry and government regulators – the passengers appear to be the biggest losers.

George Donohue
George Donohue
Photos by Evan Cantwell

Why do passengers put up with horrible service? Donohue suggests that flyers believe delays are just a part of modern industrialized society. However, European air travelers experience a much more predictable and enjoyable flight experience than passengers in the United States. The European regulation agencies use slot controls and do not allow airlines to schedule more flights than the airports can safely handle.

Donohue blames the congestion in the United States on deregulation of the airline industry in 1978. Those laws took away government control over how many flights could be scheduled at a given time at a given airport.

“Passengers are treated horribly, and they simply accept it. They are treated like sheep,” Donohue says. “I’d like to see a revolt of the sheep. If passengers make their voices heard to the government, changes will have to come. They need to demand that Congress fix the problem, not with just a passengers’ bill of rights, but with polices that unclog the system.”

A Way Out of Terminal Chaos

One solution that could be implemented in the short term is something Donohue calls the “30 percent solution.” He proposes that the airlines reduce their schedule by 30 percent and use aircraft that are 30 percent larger at the 10 busiest airports. Under this solution, the takeoff and landing slots at the busiest airports would be auctioned to the airlines at a fair-market value.

“The average airplane size at many of our major airports today is 100 seats. A Boeing 737 is about 30 percent larger and quite common in current airline fleets,” says Donohue, who believes that this slight switch could eliminate most of the delays.

Donohue says that the airlines have chosen not to purchase larger aircraft in recent years because customers like frequency of service, and smaller airplanes leave the airlines with fewer empty seats on each flight.

“It’s a trade-off. Going to a slightly larger aircraft actually provides cheaper flights for the consumers, although the frequency of the flights goes down slightly,” Donohue notes.

Airlines do not want to reduce their schedules on their own, because they worry that their competition will not comply, thereby affecting their own bottom line. And because of antitrust laws, airlines cannot get together and collectively decide to reduce their schedules.

“There is no rule in the United States that prevents the airlines from scheduling significantly beyond the safe operating capacity of the airports,” Donohue explains.

In the long term, Donohue and Shaver stress the need to increase the overall capacity and efficiency of the airports. Building new runways takes several years, and airports in larger cities may not have the space to expand. New technology to be implemented by the FAA will also improve the required separation space between aircraft, but technology alone will not unclog the congested airways.

At the same time, the authors hope that consumers will become educated about the complicated issues involved, which they’ve laid out in their book, and put pressure on the government to act.

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