New York Airports Account for 41 of 50 Most-Delayed Flights

After meetings in New York, Chris Nagy often went home on Continental Airlines Inc.’s 7:30 p.m. flight to Omaha, Nebraska. It was so reliably late he could eat a leisurely dinner before going to New Jersey’s Newark airport.

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“I knew it was never going to leave on time, and sure enough I’d get there at 8 or 8:30 and they wouldn’t even be close to boarding,” said Nagy, 45, managing director of order routing sales and strategy for TD Ameritrade Holding Corp.

Thousands of travelers at New York’s three major airports shared experiences like Nagy’s, whose Flight 2558 arrived late half the time in 2009 by an average 61 minutes. Of the country’s 50 tardiest flights, 41 started or ended at Newark or New York’s LaGuardia and Kennedy airports, according to data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics for Bloomberg News.

The figures offer the first full-year glimpse at delays on individual routes in the biggest U.S. aviation market and the ripple effect across the nation. The statistics agency ranked almost 3,400 flights based on how often they arrived late, which is defined as 15 minutes or more beyond schedule.

“It’s part of the cost of doing business in the chronically congested New York area,” said Michael Derchin, a CRT Capital Group LLC analyst who previously worked for billionaire Julian Robertson’s Tiger Management LLC. “You just have to expect a certain amount of delays.”

Delay Cost

New York-area flights make up 12 percent of operations at the 35 largest airports while accounting for almost half the delays, according to the Air Transport Association. Industrywide delays may have cost U.S. carriers as much as $17 billion in 2009, including spending on wasted fuel and crew pay, the Washington-based trade group said yesterday.

Carriers affected by New York tie-ups include Delta Air Lines Inc., which has a hub at Kennedy; AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, second-largest in the world behind Delta and operator of bases at Kennedy and LaGuardia; Continental, which has a Newark hub; and New York-based JetBlue Airways Corp.

Airlines keep their chronically delayed flights to preserve “use it or lose it” landing rights at airports such as LaGuardia where the U.S. government controls access, said Jeff Straebler, a fixed-income strategist at RBS Securities Inc. The solution, Continental and other airlines said, is to upgrade the U.S. air-traffic control system.

The federal data offer clues on how airlines manage congestion: All but eight of the most-delayed flights involved regional carriers such as Delta’s Comair unit and Continental partner ExpressJet Holdings Inc.

‘Very Proactive’

“They’re very proactive in choosing ‘this is the flight that’s going to take the hit’ because they want to minimize cost and passenger irritation from missed connections or late arrivals,” said Straebler, who like CRT’s Derchin is based in Stamford, Connecticut.

Continental moved Flight 2558, operated by ExpressJet, to 9 p.m. Nagy said it still rarely leaves before 10:30 p.m., arriving in the wee hours the next day. He said passengers on the 50-seat Embraer 145 jet dubbed it the “Midnight Pencil.”

“If you’re on a little regional jet like that, the airlines are like ‘Sorry guys, but you’re gonna sit on the tarmac for two hours to clear all the big jets out first, then you can take off,’” said Nagy, who estimated he flies about 125,000 miles a year.

New York-area delays reinforce the need to “modernize the nation’s antiquated air-traffic control system,” said Julie King, a spokeswoman for Houston-based Continental. ExpressJet referred calls to Continental.

74 Minutes

The 50 most-delayed flights in 2009 were an average of 74 minutes late, and 14 had longer delays than their average time in the air, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, which hadn’t previously released annual results.

Newark posted the worst on-time arrival rate among the biggest U.S. airports last year, at 66 percent, government figures show. LaGuardia was second-worst with 69 percent.

The most-delayed flight was a trip from Washington Dulles to Kennedy on Comair that was late 85 percent of the time, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. It was airborne for 62 minutes on average, and late by 65 minutes. Delta’s schedule shows that flight operated for only four months last year, which isn’t reflected in the U.S. figures.

Snow and rain and congestion can “significantly” delay Comair flights because half the carrier’s operations occur in the northeastern U.S., said Christine Weaver, a spokeswoman.

“We constantly monitor those flights on the frequently delayed list and work closely with Delta to develop a schedule that takes into account the many factors that impact Northeast operations,” Weaver said.

Congestion Outlook

Improvements in New York may come slowly.

Construction began March 1 to replace Kennedy’s longest runway, which handles half of departures. JetBlue, Delta and others agreed not to increase flights for the peak travel season to minimize tie-ups until work is complete in June.

“It’s going to be a hell of a summer,” said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, a group that represents about 300 corporate-travel buyers globally.

Airlines at all three New York airports should be exempted temporarily from a rule taking effect in April that requires carriers to let passengers off planes stuck on tarmacs for more than three hours, Continental said on March 17. Violators face fines.

In October, the Federal Aviation Administration extended hourly flight limits at Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark for two more years while the agency hunts for ways to ease delays. The airports are run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and handle more than 100 million travelers annually.

“We understand how much flight delays impact our passengers, which is why we’ve invested billions” in runway and terminal improvements, said Stephen Sigmund, a port authority spokesman. New air traffic control technology would “produce the most significant” reductions in delays, he said.

To avoid delays, TD Ameritrade’s Nagy has started taking Southwest Airlines Co. flights to New York sometimes, even though it means making a connection at Chicago’s Midway airport.

“They don’t dink around,” Nagy said. “The pilot has the engines fired up and it’s like ‘Come on, get in, we’re going with or without you.”

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