Airlines (3)

November 11, 2009

Airlines demand special treatment

The airlines think they should be able to cut in front of all other air traffic, according to the Air Transport Association. In an opinion piece on USA Today's August 8 editorial page, ATA President James May says one solution to airline delay problems is to "give commercial flights a higher priority than other system users to protect schedule integrity."

But it's not the other aircraft in the system that are delaying airliners. Even the USA Today editorial writers said, "The situation is aggravated by the airlines' practice of scheduling more 'rush hour' flights than some airports can accommodate, even under perfect conditions. On Tuesday, 57 flights were scheduled to take off from New York's Kennedy Airport from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. — about a dozen more than top airport capacity, according to air traffic controllers." The Department of Transportation says scheduling and weather are the biggest causes of airline delays.

And airline flights already get priority in the air traffic control system. Mr. May, who is not a pilot, may not know this, but any pilot with experience flying IFR certainly does.

It's not an official FAA policy, but practical reality is that air traffic controllers work to keep the flow of airliners steady. If you're too low or slow to go with the flow, you will be vectored to the "back 40" until a big enough hole opens up for you to get in without disrupting airline arrivals and departures.

Even pilots of corporate jets that can fly higher and faster than airliners sometimes find themselves taking the long way around or holding in favor of the airlines' schedule.

Consider this recent case. A pilot of a piston-engine aircraft was well south of New York City when he asked air traffic control to approve a course change to avoid a thunderstorm. "Too busy with inbounds to JFK," was the response. ATC was clearly giving priority attention to his airline traffic.

Or consider this report from a California pilot returning from a trip to Reno, Nevada. "I was making an approach into Van Nuys Airport. There was a Southwest 737 approaching for landing at Burbank. The controller asked me to make a 360 so 'he could get the Boeing in.' I happily complied. The jet flew behind me and landed without one second of delay. GA causing airline delays?"

Updated: August 10, 2007, 3:43 p.m. EDT