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After flight delays soared to record-breaking heights in the summer of 2007, inconveniencing millions of travelers and costing the U.S. economy as much as $41 billion, the Department of Transportation (DOT)’s Office of Inspector General called for “urgently needed” improvements from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). But long-term answers to chronic air travel delays remain elusive. The rate of late arriving and canceled flights climbed each year between 2002 and 2007, coming to a head in the summer of 2007 when there was a 28 percent jump in flight cancellations and a 25 percent rise in long delays on the tarmac, compared to a similar period in 2006. Over the course of 2007, 163 million passengers were delayed a total of 320 million hours. Nearly 25 percent of all U.S. flights were delayed in 2007, costing airlines $8.1 billion in direct operating costs. Airspace congestion and over-scheduling were among the culprits, according to the inspector general. For instance, in selected 15-minute increments at Chicago O’Hare and Minneapolis-St. Paul, scheduled departures totaled two to three times what those airports could reasonably accommodate. The FAA has instituted caps on takeoff and landing slots at some of the nation’s busiest airports, but that alone has not solved the problem. While the long-term solution lies largely in modernizing the air traffic control system, the inspector general said a number of short-term solutions are crucial — such as a plan to negotiate with the Department of Defense (DOD) for use of restricted airspace and a system for better understanding and monitoring current airline scheduling practices. An FAA spokesman noted that 70 percent of delays are caused by bad weather, but said the agency was responding by working with the Pentagon, using new software to help direct specific aircraft during bad weather, conducting voluntary negotiations with airports to spread out peak periods, and working to redesign airspace in New York.

The Government Accountability Office recently acknowledged that the DOT and the FAA had taken significant steps since summer 2007 to alleviate problems. Flight delay and cancellation rates declined in summer 2008. An FAA plan requiring airlines to auction off up to 20 percent of slots at New York airports in January 2009 — to alleviate congestion there and raise money for other improvements — was blocked by the U.S. Court of Appeals in December pending full review of the case brought by an airline trade group and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

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