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November 23, 2014

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Landing procedure boycott increasing flight delays

Flying out of town soon? Better pack a book -- and it might be a good idea to bring a sleeping bag as well.

Most of the blame is going to the usual culprits -- bad weather and an increasing reliance on hub airports -- but a month-old landing procedure boycott by pilots is now exacerbating the situation.

Flight delays and cancellations are sweeping through the country, up from last year's record-breaking number of delays. According to Federal Aviation Administration data, the number of air-traffic control delays from October through May is up 13.8 percent over the same period last year.

Those delays are affecting every major airport in the country, including McCarran International Airport, where delays rose more than 12 percent from 1998 to 1999.

While the flights arriving at and leaving McCarran are often late, the problem doesn't originate here, observers agree.

The principal cause of the delays systemwide is bad weather -- a problem almost unknown under the local airport's sunny skies.

But bad weather in other areas worsens a situation spawned by increasing reliance on regional hubs around the country, which are more and more congested and reaching the limits of their carrying capacities.

Now complicating the picture is a growing refusal by commercial pilots, essentially a work action, to do controversial "land and hold short" landings at airports nationwide, including McCarran. Under this landing operation, one flight will stop short on landing to allow another flight to take off or land on an intersecting runway.

Unions representing commercial pilots say they don't trust the landing operation at the best of times, even if there isn't a pressing safety issue. That's the case at McCarran, said Hilarie Grey, Clark County Aviation Department spokeswoman.

"Pilots haven't been accepting it here for a while," she said.

That has been the case all over the country for some time, but observers say the practice started to have an effect in the last month, after a call to refuse the procedure from the Air Line Pilots Association that represents 60,000 pilots. The boycott was a result of the FAA's plan to extend land and hold practices to international and private pilots. That plan is now on hold.

McCarran has enough surplus capacity that the refusals aren't directly affecting on-time performance, Grey said.

"It is not affecting us much at this point but it is something we'll have to talk about in the future," Grey said.

The local airport also has a couple of other factors going for it, she said. One is the long length of the runways, one of which can handle even international Concorde flights. Another is the generally good weather the area enjoys, Grey said.

But in the hub airports such as Boston's Logan, Chicago's O'Hare and Miami International, the pilots' refusal is cutting sorely needed capacity.

The number of delayed flights at O'Hare rose by more than 71 percent last year. The percentage of delayed flights nearly doubled at Baltimore-Washington International and Indianapolis International, and rose nearly 140 percent at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.

Those delays inevitably reach McCarran.

"We're getting the ripple effect nationally," Grey said.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines argue that land-and-hold-short operations are a safe way to put more flights in and out of an airport in a given amount of time, cutting delays.

"We at the FAA believe that LAHSO is a safe and proven procedure to increase capacity," said William Shumann, FAA spokesman. "We have used it for over 30 years and hope to continue using it."

Commercial pilots and consumer advocates disagree with the FAA.

Commercial pilots were alarmed late last year when the FAA announced land-and-hold-short operations would be extended to include international flights and private, or "general," aviation.

About a month ago, domestic commercial pilots started refusing to do land-and-hold-short operations at major airports around the country, causing delays that are rippling through the system.

Shumann estimated that pilots' refusal to land and hold short has cut some airport capacity by 20 percent at peak times. Losing capacity means delays for planes on the ground waiting to take off or in the air waiting to land.

Accepting a land-and-hold-short designation is up to the pilot. If the pilot feels there is a safety issue, he can refuse to land until both intersecting runways are completely clear.

The airlines, which have a vital financial interest in getting as many passengers as possible in and out, are frustrated with the systemwide refusal to use the operation.

"It's an important part of the air traffic control system," said David Fuscus, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an airline trade group. "By refusing to do the operation they're just delaying the system."

Fuscus said land-and-hold-short operations aren't the issue. The airlines are pushing for a full overhaul of the decades-old equipment used in flight control operations nationally.

The airlines believe that $40 billion is needed to modernize the system nationally over the next decade. The latest federal budget had about $2 billion for FAA equipment and facilities.

Consumer advocates and pilot union representatives say the bottom line is safety.

Land-and-hold-short operations "used to be discouraged, if not banned, and now it's virtually mandated," said Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project.

The project, founded by consumer activist Ralph Nader, argues that the best way to reduce flight delays is to reduce the number of flights crowded into peak traffic times at the busiest, hub airports.

Hudson said the present system works as kind of a shell game. Airlines schedule flights knowing that the flight will likely be delayed or even canceled.

Those passengers get bumped back to later and later flights, leading to high levels of frustration, he said.

Gregg Overman, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Union, which represents 10,000 American Airlines pilots, said commercial pilots recognize the economic value of increasing capacity.

But roping in international pilots -- who often don't have a full command of English -- and often inexperienced general aviation pilots into land-and-hold-short operations is a recipe for safety problems, he said.

The pilots also have concerns about the operation in general, Overman said.

"We simply felt it was overdue for the FAA to take a look at 'LAHS' operations in its entirety and address the concerns that we and other pilots' groups in this country have identified," Overman said.

The FAA, the pilots unions and other stakeholders are working to find an answer to the impasse over land-and-hold-short operations, to demands for more sophisticated air-traffic-control equipment and other issues affecting the traveling public.

Shumann said the FAA is holding weekly conferences over the issues. But he stopped short of predicting a successful resolution to the debate, or to the pilots' refusals to land and hold short.

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