By Martin B. Deutsch
August 23, 2007 -- The distressing statistics on airline delays released earlier this month by the Department of Transportation (DOT) vividly brings home a persistent plague in the road warrior's life. Exactly 20 years ago, in Frequent Flyer magazine, I wrote a column highlighting your anger at the mounting delays. The column spotlights the fact that nothing much, if anything, has changed during the intervening years. Our leading complaint then, as now, was the delays undermining our air-transportation system and our lives on the road. Delays made our lives miserable then and they make our lives miserable now.

As you can see by the column excerpts below, your comments about flight delays in 1987 make shockingly timely reading today. About the only difference between then and now is that the government now requires on-time ratings for every flight and nearly real-time flight tracking is available at Web sites such as FlightStats.com and Flightaware.com. Of course, I consider the government-mandated on-time ratings phony because they allow so much dead air, so to speak, at the beginning and end of each flight. And it's depressing that, even with so much padding in the schedules, the DOT reported that one in three flights in June ran at least 15 minutes late.

Incidentally, in case you've forgotten, the term PATCO in the column below refers to the air-traffic controllers union. Then-President Ronald Reagan broke PATCO early in the 1980s when it dared to strike.

September, 1987 -- More than 15,000 Frequent Flyer readers expressed their opinions in this year's Frequent Flyer Poll. To no one's surprise, flight delays emerged as the biggest issue.

We invited you to tell us, in your own words, what you would do to solve the flight delay crisis. Even such an open-ended question produced a consensus: Most of you said that airlines should rethink the way they schedule flights and end what is perceived as the practice of scheduling departures with little or no chance of leaving on-time.

Most of you said that you would prefer that the airlines adjust their schedules voluntarily, without government interference. However, 25 percent of you said that you now support caps on the number of flights that can be scheduled from busy airports at the busiest times.

Fifteen percent of you think that hiring more air traffic controllers would ease the situation, although only 3 percent volunteered that such hiring should come from the ranks of former PATCO members. About 8 percent supported stronger government action, approaching or including airline reregulation.

Interestingly, several hundred frequent flyers, apparently resigned to delays, suggested that travelers be compensated in some form for the inconvenience. A number recommended bonus mileage credits for delayed passengers. And one reader offered the following compensation formula:
     15-30 minutes late = one free cocktail.
     30-60 minutes late = 10 percent reduction in fare.
     More than an hour late = 25 percent reduction in fare.

What follows are some of the verbatim comments you made about how you would solve the problem of flight delays:

"The government should allow only as many scheduled arrivals and departures as can reasonably and safely be handled at an airport."

"More federal financing for airport improvements and expansion will be required before anything seriously improves."

"Airlines should be required to stick to their schedules, regardless of their equipment and their hub problems. It's when they try to carry the most passengers with the fewest aircraft (and crew members) that things go wrong."

"The whole hub system has got to go. The airlines just can't keep trying to dump all of us into one airport at the same time. Sorry, fellas."

"Turn traffic control over to private industry and then phase out all unions."

"The Federal Aviation Administration should assign slots to airlines. The best take-off and landing slots should go to the airline that has the best on-time performance during the previous 12 months."

"Airlines should warn passengers about impending delays or cancellations and then book us on competing carriers."

"Congress should insist that our ticket-tax money be released immediately to improve the air traffic control system and upgrade computers."

"Make the airlines pay us in dollars for every minute they hold us captive. They would find a way to get off on-time."

"Airlines should be forced to publish the on-time record for every flight. Then let passengers decide."

"Ticket prices should be set at various levels throughout the day, so that everyone wouldn't want to fly at the same time."

"The airlines should try a little honesty."

"Improve the country's rail system!"

"I wouldn't do anything. The air-transport system works just fine."

Finally, one courageous reader attacked the Gordian knot with clear-eyed vision. How can airlines solve the delay crisis? "Leave on-time."
ABOUT MARTIN B. DEUTSCH Martin B. Deutsch created Frequent Flyer magazine in 1980 and was editor-in-chief and publisher for 15 years. He also wrote a column called "Up Front" for Frequent Flyer during those years. In a 50-year career, he created, published and edited dozens of other travel publications. Deutsch is based in New York.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Martin B. Deutsch in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Mr. Deutsch. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of Mr. Deutsch.

This column is Copyright © 2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.