THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are headed towards gridlock because we are out of the bound.
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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Delayed and delayed and canceled.
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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No way you can schedule 50 flights an hour in an airport that has room for 38 and not call it a problem.
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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is no silver bullet to this dilemma.
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LEON HARRIS, HOST: Good evening and welcome to CNN PRESENTS; I'm Leon Harris.
If you have done any flying in the last year, chances are you have been stuck waiting in the terminal, at the gate or on a taxiway. Simple put: Flying from point A to point B on time is a lot harder than it used to be. Bad weather and insurgent passengers are the main culprits, but those things alone can't explain why the air traffic system has become so overloaded and why it's getting worse.
Tonight: A rare behind-the scenes look at the not so friendly skies and what can be done to undo gridlock.
HARRIS (voice-over): This is how the crowded skies look and sound from inside the system. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You make it into a video game in your mind, but you have to keep it in mind that there are live people and live airplanes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You, those pilots. And the rules say, this dot can't touch that dot. When something goes bad, a close call, that's when you walk away and say, there's a couple hundred people there and a couple hundred people there and that's what scared me. That's when it comes and hits home.
HARRIS: It's Wednesday afternoon in mid-March at one of the nation's busiest air-traffic control centers and the planes just keep coming.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's no stopping the problem. There's no button that says everybody stop where you are.
HARRIS: These controllers are directing traffic in and out of five airports in the New York area. At any point, up to 400 planes are on their radar.
TOM ZACCHEO, AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER: You're standing in the intersection holding to your 2-year-old daughter. All of a sudden your daughter lets go and runs into oncoming traffic; your heart just pops into your mouth, because you don't know if she will get hit by a car or not. That's the kind of rush and adrenaline you get on a radar scope.
HARRIS: Look closely at this picture. Every one of these blips is an airplane. As many as 7,000 over the United States at one time.
With nearly 2 million people flying in the United States every day it's little wonder the system is so clogged.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's been delayed, delayed, and canceled.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We do feel like a prisoner.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Spend 6 and a half hours in a plane on the runway.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're never on time; you can't count on it. It's been a hell of a year for travel.
HARRIS: Last year, one in four flights was delayed, canceled or diverted. The average delay was over 50 minutes.
BOB BAKER, AMERICAN AIRLINES: We're headed toward gridlock because we are out of balance. We are trying to do more flying with more passengers with runway airspace capacity that is not keeping pace. Very simply, that is the problem.
HARRIS: We set out to get a handle on how the system works and why delays are so common: We decided to track a flight through the system on a typical day. To do so, cameras were granted unusual access in six locations. At Chicago's O'Hare Airport, Newark Airport, the FAA Command Center in Virginia. New York air-traffic control on Long Island and American Airline Central Command in Dallas. And we also had a camera onboard an American flight. We asked Kevin Mitchell of the business travel coalition to fly with us.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Travel has gotten so stressful the last couple of years that a lot of the business people I speak with on a daily basis, they loathe going out on the road anymore.
HARRIS: One recent study found air travel delays cost $6 billion a year. That doesn't include the human cost.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's taking quite a personal toll because many times they miss important family events. It's not fun to spend a Friday night in Detroit when your son is going to pitch his first game.
HARRIS: Mitchell was ticketed on an afternoon flight from Chicago to Newark. American Airlines flight 1472. It was a seemingly perfect day for flying out of O'Hare but trouble was brewing hundreds of miles away.
This is the nerve center of American Airlines in Dallas at 8:30 that morning, a place no traveler ever sees.
Scores of dispatchers, technicians and meteorologists watching every single American flight, some 2,500 each day. If there is trouble: They are on top of it. Today's headline challenge:
High winds in the Northeast. Their job is to monitor delays and figure out how to reduce them.
Every two hours, they join a conference call with the FAA, 20 air-traffic control centers and 11 other airlines.
FAA officials call the shots from a national command center in Virginia.
They set limits on takeoffs and landings at airports affected by weather or traffic overload.
On this day, high winds put Newark on the hit list.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That will give us an average delay of almost two hours. I guess we will start looking at these flights and seeing what these passenger loads are and see if we can combine some of the flights into one; it is looking like a tough day at Newark.
HARRIS: American's operations team now has to decide which flights to cancel.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have to monitor it and say, OK, we normally had this many flights we will land per hour, and now we have to shrink it down to this many.
HARRIS: The decisions in Dallas quickly boomerang to Chicago, to American's command post in O'Hare. And finally to the passengers.
American flight 494 to Newark has been canceled. 48 passengers have to be moved to another flight.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can you tell the gates downstairs that all these guys are going to have to be re-booked.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A problem in New York will ripple all the way back to Chicago in minutes.
HARRIS: Russ Chew is managing director of American System Operations.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As soon as you close down a system, you automatically create a situation where there are more flights than the system can handle.
HARRIS: Weather isn't the only problem. The air lines are straining the system by scheduling so many flights so close together.
A recent FAA report found that at nearly half of the top airports, there are times everyday, when more takeoffs and landings are scheduled than the runways can handle, even under bright blue skies.
BILL DECOTA, AVIATION DEPT., N.Y. PORT AUTHORITY: Airlines typically schedule the majority of their flights for the hour and the half-hour. Airfields can handle the total number of flights scheduled over a certain hour acceptably, but if you have 25 percent of those flights all scheduled to depart exactly on the hour, or all scheduled exactly on the half-an-hour, there is no way that those planes can depart at that airport at that prescribed time. And so, therefore, you have got a built-in delay situation right there.
HARRIS: The airlines insist they are merely catering to their customers.
BAKER: The American public is not going to fly when we want them to fly. It's little bit like rush hour in any city in America. People want to come to work between 6:30 in the morning and 8:30 in the morning, go home between 4:00 and 6:00 p.m. Our customers are the same way. They want to travel when they want to travel.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Clearly, the folks that I speak with that are part of the Business Travel Coalition are saying, we would prefer less frequency and more reliability.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was on this canceled flight to New York and I called the platinum desk and they put me on the Newark flight, the one after this one, but I would like to be on this one if I may.
DARRYL JENKINS, THE AVIATION INSTITUTE: We have done experiments where we have planes at the top of the hour, 6:00, rush hour, going home, and that if you put your flights 15 minutes later, you will you lose 20 passengers. That's your profit on that flight. So, you both schedule at the same time and you beat each other's brains out through whatever process you can to divide that market up.
HARRIS: This hyper competition among airlines inevitably creates log jams during peak hours, yet the airlines maintain overscheduling is not the real problem.
CAROL HALLETT, AIR TRANSPORT ASSOCIATION: Since 1997, there have only been two additional flights added per hour, per day at our 30 major airports. That's nothing. It's not the issue. Are we looking at scheduling? Absolutely.
HARRIS (on camera): Now, how is it that the airlines can schedule that many more flights than the airport is actually capable of handling and still maintain that there is no scheduling problem?
JENKINS: Well, there is a scheduling problem. There is no way that you can schedule 50 flights an hour in an airport that has room for 38 and not call it a problem.
HARRIS (voice-over): Part of the problem is that nobody keeps track of the overall number of flights on a day-to-day basis. At all but four airports, there is no oversight of the flight scheduling, which means that if 10 airlines want to add another flight at 8:00 in the morning at a given airport and the runways are already at maximum capacity, no one can stop them. What's more, antitrust laws prevent airlines from coordinating schedules with their competitors.
(on camera): Why does that make sense?
JENKINS: Well, it's called antitrust.
HARRIS: Well, explain that to me. How is the public harmed if the airlines do get in together and discuss schedules?
JENKINS: Well, they are not if it is done correctly so there is not collusion to reduce capacity, the rates or fares.
HARRIS (voice-over): Congress is considering legislation that would allow the airlines to consult with one another. But that's small consolation for passengers moving through O'Hare and little relief for the controllers directing the traffic jams on a windy, early spring day in New York.
HARRIS: When we come back...
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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You don't feel that you are being told the truth.
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HARRIS: Why passengers are so often left in the dark about their flight.
HARRIS (voice-over): It's late morning and the winds are still gusting at Newark. You can see clearly from this landing how strong they are. What you can't see and what airline passengers never see is just how weather and other problems wreck havoc with the flight schedule.
On this day at American Airlines central command in Dallas, one thing is sure: the winds will mean long delays.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are still on the 90-minute range as far as delays, but the flights are full and we can't do anything else to help them out in that situation, so we're just going to have to go late.
HARRIS: High winds aren't the only problem. The president is flying to Newark.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've been informed that they are going to need 25 miles in front of the VIP. They don't have (UNINTELLIGIBLE), and we are going to be in holding for a while until he clears out of there.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Give you an update: Air Force One should be airborne within five minutes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We know that as the airplane gets up into the Newark area, that for security sake they are going to stop all traffic.
HARRIS: It's another day at the office for the operations coordinators at American.
RUSSELL CHEW, AMERICAN AIRLINES: Playing a three-dimensional chess game at the speed of sound. Something is always changing. And so, you always have to be making a move to react to the system.
ROGER BEATTY, OPERATION COORDINATOR: It's like kind of rewriting a schedule that took somebody in our general office three months to create; you start rewriting it in 15 minutes.
HARRIS: They are shuffling the deck on the fly at American's hub in Chicago as well. This plane, originally slated to flight from O'Hare to Newark as flight 792, has a radar problem, and while technicians work on repairs...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That trip was just canceled. So we don't have an airplane now.
HARRIS: American's gate coordinator is juggles aircraft and crews to keep pace with cancellations and delays.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's sort of like a jigsaw puzzle. You just keep moving things around until they work.
HARRIS: It's five hours before our chosen flight, number 1472, is supposed to leave, and there is already a hitch.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The initial problem is that the airplane canceled into us that we were going to use. Now we haven't assigned an airplane to it. We will, but there is no sense in doing it right now while cancellations are still going on.
HARRIS: The cancel orders are coming out of Dallas, where they are glued to computers in a nearly permanent state of damage control.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What this tool allows me to do is allows me to play "what if."
HARRIS: Watching them at work you begin to appreciate something that seems counter-intuitive: a cancellation can be a good thing.
CHEW: The idea is that I have a 9:00 flight and I have a 10:00 a.m. flight, and they are both headed to Chicago, I can take the 9:00 flight, cancel it, I can run the 10:00 flight in the 9:00 canceled slot, and the 10:00 flight will appear to operate on time. I've delayed the 9:00 people to the 10:00 slot, so those people are late by an hour, but the 10:00 people are operating on time.
HARRIS: It sounds simple, but it only works if there is room on later flights to handle passengers from the canceled flights.
The other problem is the airlines don't know if they can salvage a given situation, which means flights sometimes don't get canceled until the last minute, or delays don't get posted until very late in the game.
CHEW: Let's say your airplane that you are expecting to use for this flight is coming in from another airport and it's late, and you are expecting this airplane to depart at 2:00 p.m., and that airplane is still sitting on the ground in Phoenix. Well, the average passenger might say, well, you already know it's in Phoenix, why don't you post a later time.
But what they are not aware of is I am trying to find another airplane for that flight, and in the next 30 minutes I might be able to find that flight.
HARRIS: But passengers waiting at the gate are in the dark about what's going on behind the scenes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can't believe you can get to the airport and they can't tell you right away whether or not the flight is going to be in on time.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sometimes I will call an hour in advance just to find out, is there any delays.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They kept telling, 15 minutes, 15 minutes, and on and off for two hours.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You don't fell that you are being told the truth. HARRIS: Seasoned business traveler Kevin Mitchell says they have a right to know the odds they're facing.
KEVIN MITCHELL, TRAVELER: The airline is playing brinkmanship. It is taking a risk on its own behalf and on the customers' behalf that there will be an aircraft there, you know, in the final analysis. And the issue that many people have is they would like to know that that calculation is going on. Unfortunately, the airlines have had a history of misleading and not telling the entire story.
HARRIS: The air lines insist they get out the information about cancellations and delays as soon as it's solid.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm going to Boston.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Boston, on Flight 154 or on Flight 582.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 582.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, that flight was canceled. We'll have to get you...
HARRIS: But for all good intentions, even an American gate agent we interviewed conceded he is often among the last to know exactly why a plane is late.
JOHN KOTULSKI, AMERICAN AIRLINES GATE AGENT: Normally, I would not know why it would be late from another city because the information we have would only say maintenance or air traffic delays.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Paris...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Paris is K-11
KOTULSKI: It wouldn't have a specific item like late inbound or that type of thing.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can I help you, sir?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I'm on 582 to Boston.
KOTULSKI: Sometimes, the information I have to find out for myself because local tower has lot of other things going on.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The equipment was out of service, but we're supposed to use this plane.
HARRIS: Kevin Mitchell doesn't blame the gate agents, but he says the airlines have a good reason to withhold hard information until the last possible minute.
KOTULSKI: You're stand-by. I think They Zeroed the flight because out because the 538 canceled.
BAKER: I would agree it's not a conspiracy but on the other hand, there is strong economic incentive that the airlines have not to tell you too early because there is competitor just across the concourse that maybe will you go to.
HARRIS: As Kevin Mitchell checks in at his gate at O'Hare, he is blissfully unaware of what has really been going on with his flight. A couple of hours before scheduled departure, the word out of Dallas was not good.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Delays going into Newark were roughly about an hour and 20 minutes and some as high as two hours.
HARRIS: But on this day, Flight 1472 is lucky. Two earlier Chicago-Newark flights have been canceled, which cut 1472's delay.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At the present time, he's only got a 25- minute delay.
HARRIS: Then other break, around 3:00, the winds start to die down at Newark.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I appreciate that Newark. I guess we can go ahead and remove the departures lights that we put in there.
HARRIS: By the time Kevin Mitchell boards his flight, things are looking up. He is told Flight 1472 is on time.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good afternoon.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How is the weather in Newark?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The weather is good. Just windy
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Message from dispatch just updating the flight plan that was originally calling for quite a bit of chop en route.
HARRIS: But even as they are doing preflight checks, the pilot and copilot are wary. They have flown long enough to know how quickly things can change.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's only showing about a 15-minute delay for take off, which is really minor for Newark and La Guardia.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It all depends on the hour we're arriving at Newark. It just depends on how well they space aircraft inbound to Newark and how the winds -- if the winds are going to shift around, where they have to change runways and things back up and they start entering everybody in a holding pattern.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, clear to start. We're cleared to start.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Air taxi (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to 125.0.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going to taxi on one just to see what the delay is.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: American (UNINTELLIGIBLE), looks like you missed it. Roll down to the next one, two right turns, left on Tango, on Tango.
HARRIS (voice-over): It's Rush hour at one of the world's busiest airports, and American Airlines Flight 1472 is stuck in traffic.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Flight 1472, service for Newark.
HARRIS: The good news for Kevin Mitchell and his fellow passengers is the plane left the gate on time and the winds have died down in Newark.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: United 532, you'll see the United 737 on the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Get out at 676. You're going to find the United 73, they'll be off the left-hand side.
HARRIS: The plane is no longer in the airlines hands. It's now at the mercy of air-traffic control.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: American 1472, I will let you know your sequence. It'll either be behind the 757 or possibly someone else. I'll let you know.
CHEW: There is a notion that we actually know when time the airplane will go because after all, we are the airline, we must be in control of that. But keep in mind that the system, as it unfolds, is not always telling us what time that we're going to go. That's why you can sit waiting for takeoff and they can't understand why the pilot doesn't know what time he's going to take off, but he doesn't know.
HARRIS: Even though the weather is now clear at O'Hare and Newark, Flight 1472 can be held up by plane traffic hundreds of miles away. The flight has to pass through the busiest air corridor in the country.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The old 215 there, we're going to hear something about Cleveland on the half-hour.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 215, roger.
HARRIS: When planes leave O'Hare, the tower hands them off to controllers at other locations who manage airborne traffic in sectors between airports. If those sectors get overloaded, planes can back up on the ground in Chicago.
BILL COTTON, RETIRED UNITED AIRLINES PILOT: The controllers are very much aware of who is in the air and how long they have been there and they do their very best to minimize the delay in the air. On the ground, it's a different story. They know that there are airplanes holding, but they don't necessarily know how many or how long each of them individually have been there. The airlines and their passengers are held hostage to a system that is safe, but it is not efficient.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was stuck for about six hours on the runway. They wouldn't let us off the plane.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We just sat there and waited and now we are waiting here.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just told us it wasn't their fault and there was air traffic, so we just had to deal with it.
JOHN CARR, NATIONAL AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLERS ASSOC.: The problem with relaying absolutes to the passengers is that there is nothing absolute when you are operating in there dimensions at 600 miles per hour.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Your seat belts must remain fastened at all times.
CARR: You might be told that you're going to hold for 10 minutes, and then an airplane lands and blow a tire. Now, you're going to be holding for an hour. You may be told that you're going to hold for a half an hour, and then someone see a spot for you and rush you right and you think, well, that was bogus. It's not bogus, it's a proactive approach to air traffic that is continually trying to manage demand safely, and sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug.
HARRIS: And sometimes, believe it or nor, bad weather in Florida can delay a flight from Chicago to New York. If flights from New York to Florida are held on the ground because of storms in the South, flights into New York can be held up on the ground thousands of miles away.
CHEW: And so you can be sitting in Chicago, waiting for take off to go to New York, and it's clear in Chicago and clear in New York and clear in-between, and yet you're taking a delay going into New York because of weather in northern Florida. That's a very difficult situation to explain to your passengers.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: American 1472, you will depart behind the arrival ...
HARRIS: Fortunately for Flight 1472, there is no bad weather in Florida or anywhere else to clog the system.
After 35 minutes of hurry up and wait the plane takes off.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: American 1472 Chicago departure 125.0.
HARRIS: Once airborne, Flight 1472 joins thousands of planes as a blip on a radar. Looking at the lines of aircraft headed in and out of Chicago at this moment you see something else that most passengers don't realize: Jets are required to fly in fixed airplanes separated by at least five miles.
CAROL HALLETT, AIR TRANSPORT ASSOC.: Right now we have single lane highways in the sky. We have 27 million square miles of airspace, so there's plenty of airspace.
STEVEN BROWN, FAA: I understand why people look up in the sky and say there is lot of airspace, but there is also aircraft flying anywhere from 100 to 600 miles an hour in an airspace. Those airplanes are moving very fast and they need to maintain safe separation.
HARRIS: If that spacing was reduced more planes could squeeze into the system, meaning fewer delays. Even the head of the controller's union believes that can be done safely given its accuracy of modern radar.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The standards were invented 50 years ago at the advent of us of radar. And by invented, I mean, they were basically plucked out of thin air. There was no investigation done, no hard data run.
HARRIS: The FAA recently announced it is reviewing separation standards, but no changes are expected until 2004. On this day, American 1472 makes good time heading east, helped along by strong tailwinds.
Mid-flight, the pilot gives a promising forecast. But as smooth as the ride is at 33,000 feet the controlled chaos of the New York airspace lies ahead.
HARRIS: The afternoon shift at air-traffic control for the New York region gives new meaning to the phrase "New York minute."
DEAN IACOPELLI, AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER: When we talk to a pilot here, it's a hurry -- I need him or her to do it now, the first time, and right.
I don't have time to discuss why I need you to do it, or when I need you to do it. I need you to do it now and right and hear me the first time.
I have had pilots based in other parts of the country say, can you slow down? I can't hear to fast.
ZACCHEO: They actually say, welcome to New York. They'll say that to us because we are going a mile a minute. .
HARRIS: Kevin Mitchell and the 102 other passengers and crew on American Flight 1472 will have to run this gauntlet before landing in Newark.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Also what you have to do, when you give a pilot instruction you have to project ahead of that to see if the airspace is clear. HARRIS: For the controllers working arrivals it's a war against chaos. Trying to sequence planes for landing as tightly as possible while keeping them at safe distance. If planes fly too closely behind one another, lives could be at stake.
Aircraft generate turbulence in their wake like an invisible horizontal tornado. As this test shows the affect on a plane caught in that wake can be extremely dangerous.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The vortex off a heavy airplane like a 747 is strong enough to roll a lighter airplane on its back, a very unsafe situation and one that is avoided by providing more space behind the airplane.
HARRIS: To maintain safe separation in crowded skies, controllers inevitably are forced to put even greater distance between plains and that can add to delays in the system.
KEN SHAPERO, UPS AIR GROUP: When that airspace gets crowded and it gets busy, the controller wants to maintain a minimum of five miles or ten miles but there are so many things going on that the controller has to be concerned about, that the controller doesn't have time to micromanage the space between each pair of airplanes.
HARRIS: Help for the controllers is out there. Technology that would allow them to safely sequence planes closer together but deploying it could take years.
MARK STERNAT, AMERICAN AIRLINES PILOT: We have all this technology but we are still flying planes around control centers with dinosaur type equipment.
DARRYL JENKINS, THE AVIATION INSTITUTE: This part of problem that drives people like me totally wacko. All the technology we need to fully modernize the air-traffic control system we have. We can buy it more or less off the shelf.
HARRIS: A number of promising tools are in the offing. NASA has designed a system that could give controllers a clear picture of where dangerous things are near airports.
Satellite-based technology that would enable planes to fly closer together is also being tested.
SHAPERO: Right now the pilots do not have any information or display at all that shows them the precise position of other traffic like an air-traffic controller would see it.
HARRIS: One system called ADSB was developed by package carrier UPS.
Because this system allows pilots to keep the distance between planes to a minimum, UPS says up to 20 percent more planes could land on a given runway.
Why aren't we seeing this kind of technology? It's up to the FAA. And so observers say new tools are be held up by a FAA bureaucracy that is overly-consumed with safety.
JENKINS: The mind-set it takes to regulate the safety is a different type of mind-set that it takes to build new technology. So you have a regulator who has a square box and never moves out of that square box thinking and you have technology which requires somebody to think outside of the box, and you have all of this in the same building.
BROWN: FAA's primary focus has always been and I believe always will be on safety.
We are acutely aware though as we develop new technology and we deploy new procedures that we need to have most efficient system possible, that produces the greatest capacity, albeit safely, for the American public.
HARRIS: In the last two years the FAA has managed to upgrade computer hardware and screen displays for most of the airtraffic controllers.
New tools to help controllers sequence planes more efficiently are gradually being phased in. However, the agency is still paying for past sins -- billions of dollars in cost overruns, years of delays on projects.
COTTON: It's too little, and it's too late. They can be proud of the fact that they have accomplished something, because for several decades they accomplished almost nothing. The pace of implementation of new technology is glacial, and that's being kind.
HARRIS: The FAA recently unveiled a 10-year plan to upgrade technology in the air traffic control system. Critics insist the private sector could bring about change much sooner. As for the controllers, they say new technology will help, but unless new runways are added, the flying public shouldn't expect delays to go away.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have another 22 minutes before landing.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is no silver bullet to this dilemma, and anyone who thinks there's -- whether it's satellite-based navigation systems, some new and improved communications gear, that simply is not case. That's fantasy.
HARRIS: Coming up: a concrete fix for gridlock?
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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The real problems are we do not have enough runways.
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HARRIS: Not in my backyard.
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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The first three words out of my son's mouth were "momma," "dadda" and "airplane."
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HARRIS: Early evening at gate 35 of the A terminal at Newark Airport, and it's not hard to spot the looks of grim resignation. Passengers heading to Chicago on American flight 1227 are waiting on a delayed inbound aircraft.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Any -- any ideas?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's due out at 6:25 now.
HARRIS: Meanwhile, Kevin Mitchell is cruising on board flight 1472, now hopeful of an on-time arrival. Takeoffs and landing at Newark are back to normal.
Unfortunately, normal at Newark doesn't necessarily mean delay- free. As with so many congested airports, runway availability is a huge factor in delays.
HALLETT: If we really wanted to do something for the passengers, which the airlines do, then you and I and everyone else would be zeroing in on what the real problems are. The real problems are, we do not have enough runways.
HARRIS: That's because building a new runway can take -- well, almost forever. The airlines, the controllers and the FAA more or less agree that adding 25 runways to airports around the country would put a major dent in delays, but only one new runway -- in Detroit -- is scheduled to open this year. Another 17 are proposed or are under construction, but some of those won't be ready until 2010.
Almost every proposed runway is under siege from people who live near airports.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Those lies, deceptions and contrivances come to an end now!
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The first three words out of my son's mouth were "momma," "dadda" and "airplane."
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Enough is enough.
HARRIS: Nowhere has a runway battle gone on longer than at Logan Airport in Boston.
VIRGINIA BUCKINGHAM, MASSPORT: We have been fighting for this runway for almost 30 years here. It's been a struggle because Logan is an urban airport, we're based three miles from downtown, where I am surrounded by some very densely populated residential areas, and clearly those neighborhoods are fearful of what growth at an airport means.
HARRIS: Logan now ranks fifth in the nation in delays, delays often caused by winds. When they blow from the Northwest, Logan can only use one or two runways instead of its usual three. So, even on a beautiful sunny day, delays of over an hour can occur.
BUCKINGHAM: We want to build a runway that would give us that third runway during Northwest winds, and it will cut our delays by 30 percent.
HARRIS: Opponents in the surrounding communities think the runways will make a big impact too, a big, bad impact, and they have organized a citizens group to fight back.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The Logan runway expansion proposal is bad for the environment, bad for the economy and bad for average citizens.
HARRIS: A new runway, they say, would only bring more planes, and eventually more delays, along with more noise and pollution.
ANASTASIA LYMAN, CONSTITUENTS AGAINST RUNWAY EXPANSION: There is absolutely no way people can carry on a normal life, with windows open, certainly not outside. Well, as we pause, you can see why. I think that speaks volumes.
HARRIS: This is the main reason Logan neighbors are so fearful. Carolyn Lassard (ph) lives less than a mile from Logan, and planes fly 500 feet over her house.
CAROLYN LASSARD, LIVES NEAR LOGAN AIRPORT: When we bought the house here, we knew there was an airport, we knew there were going to be some disruptions. I don't think we knew there was going to be this much. There have been nights where I've ducked -- I've ducked!
HARRIS: The FAA does provide sound proofing for homes like Lassard's, but she says it doesn't do much good. In fact, she cancels her children's piano lessons in the summer when they keep their windows open.
LASSARD: Three times two?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Six.
HARRIS: And she says all year long the noise continues well into the evening.
LASSARD: Put those kids to bed, I'm ready for it to be done with for me to sit down and watch a 9:00 movie, and I can't. It's always at the best line that the airplane goes over, and you don't hear the punchline!
HARRIS: While Carolyn Lassard (ph) and others complain about the noise, Massport claims the new runway would actually disperse sound more evenly around the airport. BUCKINGHAM: Delayed airplanes don't go away. They land much later than they already would, or they sit on tarmac spewing fumes, which the neighbors complain about -- rightly so -- instead of being able to take off and get the heck out of here. And that's what this runway would really do for our neighbors. It would allow those planes that are circling over your head into the evening to get on the ground and turn off their engines.
HARRIS: The goal, according to Massport, is not to bring in more plains. However, neither Massport nor the FAA can prevent airlines from adding new flights at Logan.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They continue to say that this new runway is not going to attract anymore or help increase capacity. We know -- and logically, anybody knows -- with an additional runway, moving smaller planes out, you are going to have a greater capacity.
HARRIS: Massport argues that easing the delays at Logan will help sustain Boston as a place where people like to do business.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm joined here today by representatives of business, labor, airports and airline pilots who understand how important this project is to this city, this region and this nation.
HARRIS: Massport hoped the runway will finally get FAA promise this fall, six years after the proposal was drafted and 30 years after it was originally proposed.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When does the health of the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts come before the almighty dollar?
HARRIS: The Logan runway project has been the subject of more than 100 public meetings. In all, more than 10,000 pages of reports and comments have been filed.
BUCKINGHAM: It's taken so long because there's no deadlines. What has happened again and again is we get to the point of filing an environmental document and it kind of sits there in no man's land for many months and sometimes longer than that because the federal government is under no requirement to give an answer.
HALLETT: It now takes about 10 or 11 years to build a runway because of all of bureaucratic red tape and rigmarole.
HARRIS: Since 1991, only six runways have been added at the nation's busiest airports.
BAKER: We're going to have to make some conscious public policy trade-offs between the very few people who are really badly impacted and all beneficiaries who depend on aviation to get to market, to fly, to go to the meeting, to go on vacation. You never hear from them during the debate.
HARRIS: When come back, practical tips for navigating gridlock.
(END VIDEOTAPE) (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 1472, New York approach, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and reduce speed to 220.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: American 1472, in 2809 number one, runway two...
HARRIS: As American Airlines Flight 1472 touches down in Newark, passengers on board can consider themselves lucky. On a day when American canceled two of its eight flights from Chicago to Newark, and two flights were delayed more than hour this plane pulls up to the gate two minutes early.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, please remain seated.
HARRIS: These days, arriving early is rare and the airlines themselves warn that things will likely get worse before they get better.
BAKER: We believe there will be so many part of system heavily congested given the growth projections that in 2005, the system will look like the summer year around: heavily congested, very difficult, very delayed.
HARRIS: So, is there anything that can be done to help?
JENKINS: Yes, pass out Prozac at airports.
HARRIS: There is one potential short-term prescription, but it's medicine almost no one, not even airlines wants to swallow, higher prices.
JENKINS: That is what the future of the airline business is decrease capacity and increase prices. So my mother will not be able to see her new great grandbaby the next time one is born, and that's distressing to me.
HARRIS: What else can be done? Passengers can take certain steps to fight gridlock. Number one, if possible, avoid flying during rush hour.
CARR: The air traffic control system in this country is no different than the interstate highway system. If you travel at peak hours, you're going to be in stop-and-go traffic.
HARRIS: Number two, fly early in the day. Delays tend to ripple through the system and get longer as the day wears on. Tip number three, when booking your travel, ask about the on-time performance of the flights you're considering. Airlines are required to tell you the track record of a flight and many flights on certain routes are chronically delayed.
You might want to consider flying into alternative airport that is generally less crowded, like Providence, Rhode Island instead of Boston.
And finally, if you are at the airport and your flight is badly delayed or has been canceled, use a phone to change planes. Waiting in line at the terminal may take longer than calling the airline or you travel agent.
HARRIS: Given the outlook for more congestion and delays, passengers aren't likely to be toasting airline service anytime soon, but there is at least one hopeful sign. Almost everyone we interviewed on this program agrees that for the first time, all the players in the air traffic system seem to be working together to fix the problem.
That's this edition of CNN PRESENTS, I'm Leon Harris. We'll see you next week.
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