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Wed, May 23, 2007

FAA Expands Airspace Flow Program To Combat Summer Delays

Program Allows Airlines To Fly Around Storms

Airline delays were bad enough this past winter, as hundreds of passengers were forced to become intimately acquainted with the interiors of MD-80s, 737s, A320s, and other aircraft for hours on end, waiting out storms on tarmacs at airports throughout the country. Now imagine the same scenario, but also with summertime temperatures to contend with.

In a step toward avoiding this vertiable hell on earth, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is expanding an air traffic program aimed at reducing flight delays during the peak summer travel -- and thunderstorm -- season.

The Airspace Flow Program, as it is known, gives airlines the option of either accepting delays for flights scheduled to fly through storms... or flying longer routes to maneuver around them.

The agency launched the program last year at seven locations in the Northeast. On bad weather days at major airports in the region, delays fell by nine percent compared to the year before, according to the FAA. Cost savings for the airlines and the flying public from the program are estimated to be $100 million annually.

"This is a much better way to handle summer traffic," said FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey. "If your flight isn’t scheduled to fly through bad weather you don’t have to sit on the tarmac. If it is, your airline has the choice of taking a delay shared evenly by all the affected flights, or flying around the storm."

In theory, airlines would accept the delay before putting passengers on the plane, and departing the gate... meaning travelers would still be stuck at the airport, but they'd have a tad more breathing room (and adequate bathroom facilities.)

Before last year, severe storms often forced the FAA to ground flights at affected airports, penalizing flights not scheduled to fly through them. This program allows the FAA to manage traffic fairly and efficiently by identifying only those flights scheduled to fly through storms and giving them estimated departure times. In turn, the airlines have greater flexibility in planning schedules with less disruption for passengers.

This summer, the number of Airspace Flow Program locations -- chosen for their combination of heavy traffic and frequent bad weather -- will be expanded from seven to 18. The FAA says the additional locations will ease delays for passengers flying through the South and Midwest, as well as those on transcontinental flights.

Also, what the FAA terms "dynamic" programs will be introduced in other areas to target storms with surgical precision as they develop and move. Airspace Flow Programs will also be used in conditions not related to weather, such as severe congestion near major cities.

Airspace Flow Programs were conceived by the FAA two years ago and developed in close coordination with the airline industry. On bad weather days, agency and airline officials collaborate to decide where and when the programs should be put in place.

In another development, on Wednesday the FAA announced out a new software program that ensures airports impacted by bad weather receive the maximum number of flights that can safely fly to them. During storms, arrival slots often open up due to delayed or canceled flights. The new software program, called Adaptive Compression, automatically fills those slots with the next available flight.

The software tool, which was launched in March, is designed to reduce delays, saving time and money for the airlines and passengers.

FMI: www.fly.faa.gov/Products/Training/AFP/AFP_Training.jsp

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