Steve Marcus / file photo
Sunday, Feb. 17, 2008 | 2 a.m.
- Delayed flights on the rise at McCarran (12-7-2004)
- New instruments could ease McCarran delays (2-27-2004)
- More Vegas flights on time (7-9-2001)
- Landing procedure boycott increasing flight delays (7-9-2000)
- Flight delays unusual in Vegas (1-5-1999)
If you’re headed to McCarran International Airport tonight to pick up someone flying in from Philadelphia aboard US Airways Flight 788, slow down — there’s probably no hurry.
The scheduled arrival time is 10:58 p.m., but over the past year, the flight from Philly, on average, was more than an hour late 62 percent of the time. Annoying as a delay of that length is, Las Vegans with the misfortune to be meeting a friend or relative on the flight last Tuesday would have happily accepted a one-hour delay, because that night, US Airways 788 was 3 1/2 hours late, arriving at 2:28 a.m. Wednesday.
Similarly, passengers headed to New York on Delta Air Lines’ early afternoon flight typically have extra time for lunch, even if they may not realize it until they arrive at McCarran. Last year Delta’s Flight 776 to John F. Kennedy International Airport arrived late 55 percent of the time, with an average delay of 66 minutes.
Those are only two of dozens of consistently late flights in and out of McCarran that in 2007 left millions of the 48 million passengers who passed through the airport facing substantial delays.
Overall last year, more than one in every five flights — 22.15 percent — arriving at McCarran was late, with the average delay being 49 minutes, a Sun analysis found. Departures mirrored that record, with 24.5 percent of all of McCarran’s outgoing flights having arrived at their destinations behind schedule, by an average of 47 minutes.
Delays an industrywide problem
Even so, McCarran’s on-time performance ranked ahead of most other major U.S. airports. Little comfort can be taken from that fact, though, because McCarran’s ranking — eighth best of the country’s 32 busiest airports — simply means that airlines did an even worse job getting passengers in and out on time at other major airports.
Nationally, the percentage of planes pulling up to the gate behind schedule in 2007 was the highest of the past 12 years. Fewer than three-quarters of the 7.5 million domestic flights tracked by the U.S. Transportation Department’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics made it to their destinations within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival time.
In addition to canceled or diverted flights, that translated to 1.8 million late flight arrivals here and at destinations across the country, resulting in missed connections, scrapped meetings and red-eyed check-ins at hotels.
What the on-time performance data mean for the typical Las Vegas traveler depends largely on the particular airline, the time of day he is traveling, his destination or where the flight originates. (The Transportation Department tracks on-time performance data for roughly 85 percent of all passenger flights through McCarran, according to a federal transportation official. Smaller carriers such as Allegiant and Midwest Airlines, which represent less than 1 percent of the domestic airline market, are not required to report.)
Delays more common for certain cities
Exact causes of delays are difficult to pinpoint, because a behind-schedule late-night arrival in Las Vegas could stem from early morning weather problems or other difficulties a continent away.
Snow, for instance, can limit the number of planes that can land or take off. A flight from Newark, N.J., routed through Detroit and Salt Lake City before finally landing in Las Vegas, may be delayed because of snow in Detroit, even though the skies are blue in New Jersey.
Even if a flight pulls away from its gate at McCarran on time, it could be delayed because of weather or other problems that emerge midflight — worsening McCarran’s on-time record for reasons having nothing to do with its performance.
Though delays are annoying for all passengers, they are especially so for travelers making connections.
Rafael Underwood nearly missed his connection to Las Vegas before his original flight in Washington, D.C., even left the ground. He spent 30 extra minutes at Reagan National Airport while the plane was being fueled, leaving little time to change planes in Phoenix.
Flying nonstop would be preferable when visiting his brother in Las Vegas, but as a US Airways employee, it’s cost-effective for Underwood to take what’s available.
Phoenix “is the only way,” he said. “There is one direct flight, but it’s always full.”
Phoenix, along with Los Angeles, is one of the two busiest departure points for McCarran. In January there were close to 500 flights per week to those cities from Las Vegas, with delays at or slightly below the 2007 McCarran average.
Although the causes vary, flights to and from certain cities — and specific flights — are most frequently behind schedule at McCarran.
Even before they get to test their luck in Las Vegas’ casinos, passengers have to beat the odds of arriving here on time if they’re traveling from Philadelphia, Charlotte, N.C., and New York’s JFK, among other airports.
In 2007, 38.7 percent of flights from Philadelphia to Las Vegas were late, followed by 35.6 percent of flights from Charlotte and 33.7 percent of flights from JFK. The average delays were 63 minutes for the Philadelphia flights, 61 minutes for those from JFK and 49 minutes for flights from Charlotte.
On the departure side, passengers leaving McCarran had a better than one in three chance of arriving late if they were traveling to six cities — Amarillo, Texas (40 percent late); New York-JFK (35.4 percent); Tampa, Fla. (34.8 percent); Chicago-O’Hare (34.2 percent); Louisville, Ky. (33.7 percent); and Detroit (33.5 percent).
Chronically late from Philadelphia
Certain flights seem to be particularly jinxed when it comes to arriving at McCarran or reaching their destinations on time after leaving Las Vegas.
US Airways’ Flight 788 from Philadelphia had the worst arrival record at McCarran in 2007, arriving an average of 67 minutes late 62 percent of the time.
US Airways, in fact, has the dubious distinction of operating five of McCarran’s six most frequently delayed arriving flights. The other US Airways flights in that category in 2007 were 648 from San Francisco (late 58 percent of the time, average delay 42 minutes), 731 from Philadelphia (57 percent, 66 minutes), 468 from Phoenix (52 percent, 38 minutes) and 117 from Los Angeles (51 percent, 51 minutes.)
The other flight among McCarran’s top six most delayed arrivals was Continental’s 468 from Newark, which was late 52 percent of the time by an average of nearly 68 minutes.
US Airways also operated seven of the 10 most delayed flights departing from McCarran in 2007, a list topped by the airline’s Flight 50 to New York-JFK, which arrived late nearly two-thirds of the time — 64 percent — by an average of 55 minutes.
The flight data suggest that Las Vegas pays for congestion and delays elsewhere, because some of McCarran’s most chronically late flights originate from the nation’s most delay-prone airports, especially those in the northeast, including Philadelphia, New York-JFK and Boston.
Last year was a particularly bad one for flights between Philadelphia and Las Vegas, which arrived late about 39 percent of the time by an average of 63 minutes, the highest percentage of any city with flights to McCarran.
Historically, Philadelphia has been a problem route to Las Vegas. Over the past five years, more than one-third of flights have arrived late.
US Airways, which currently carries most of the flight traffic between here and Philadelphia — 43 of 56 weekly trips — points to Philadelphia’s position in the congested northeastern corridor as a primary cause for the extreme delays. That corridor, US Airways spokesman Morgan Durrant said, is “the most crowded piece of airspace in the world.”
Because commercial aircraft typically stop in several cities throughout the day, a late departure from one airport can affect a flight’s performance down the line, creating a time deficit that can’t be made up.
“The airline wakes up at about 5 a.m.,” Durrant said. “If we get off to a slow start, we have a hard time catching up.”
Those slow starts can stem from weather, maintenance issues and congested airspace.
Durrant noted that the worst offenders from Philadelphia, US Airways 788 and 731, suffered partly because they are night flights that have a much higher likelihood of being affected by delays from earlier in the day.
Southwest Airlines spokesman Chris Mainz said the size and scope of his airline’s operation in Las Vegas can cause delays to be felt more harshly than in other cities it serves. Mainz said that is especially true in December, when the airline “regularly takes a hit” because of inclement weather nationwide.
The airline, which is McCarran’s biggest carrier, operated seven flights that were among McCarran’s top 15 most delayed arrivals and top 15 behind-schedule outgoing flights, all from and to West Coast cities.
“I don’t think you can solely attribute weather to all delays or even a heavy majority of them,” Mainz said. “But on those flights, it’s safe to say weather and air traffic control were the primary issues.”
Location helps McCarran’s ranking
Air travel in Las Vegas does have its advantages, starting with the fact that it typically enjoys better flying weather than much of the country. But as airline officials point out, the fog, snowstorms and rain that gummed up airports elsewhere often end up affecting McCarran’s schedule.
McCarran spokesman Chris Jones and FAA spokesman Ian Gregor also pointed to the openness of this part of the country, where the nearest major airports in Los Angeles and Phoenix are hundreds of miles away.
“Geographically, we certainly are in a better position to avoid problems than many other U.S. airports,” Jones said. Though Las Vegas’ airspace is cropped to the north because of Nellis Air Force Base and the Air Force Range beyond it, McCarran does not have to work around the arrivals and departures of busy neighboring airports, a luxury not found throughout the northeast and Midwest.
‘Common use’ gates help speed traffic
Ultimately, flight timeliness sits largely on the shoulders of carriers serving Las Vegas.
“These statistics are more reflective on the airlines,” Jones said. “We can’t control how the airlines operate. There are determining factors out of our hands.”
Streamlining the time that passengers spend passing through security — McCarran added 20 security checkpoint lanes after the 9/11 attacks, with 12 more on the horizon — and the amount of time planes spend taxiing between the runway and the terminal are areas in which the airport can contribute to on-time performance.
McCarran has a mix of “common use” gates, Jones said, meaning that carriers don’t lease a particular section of terminal real estate. If Southwest is experiencing an especially high number of arrivals and there are not free spaces in the C terminal, where the carrier’s traffic is usually routed, the airline can use an open jetway at the A or B terminals.
At most airports, gates leased to another airline would remain vacant and that same Southwest flight would have to wait for a free gate to open up in its leased space.