It's going to be a rough summer for flying

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By Beth Boehne

Story Created: Apr 23, 2008 at 3:00 PM EDT

Story Updated: Apr 23, 2008 at 3:00 PM EDT

The captain has turned on the Fasten Seat Belt sign: Summer fliers may encounter even more turbulence this year.

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Travelers are likely to face another season of packed planes. Facing enormous financial strain because of high oil prices, carriers have cut domestic capacity. So planes are likely to be even fuller than last summer, when empty seats seemed as rare as in-flight meals. Staffing may also be an issue as carriers try to stem financial losses by offering buyouts to employees and resorting to layoffs. Record delays are possible again; so are record cancellations.

Recent efforts to ease congestion at some airports may not improve things much, either. Consider New York-area airports, the hub of congestion last year. To reduce rampant air-travel delays, the Federal Aviation Administration has imposed peak-hour caps on the number of New York flights this summer. Yet airline schedules have more flights, not fewer.

The number of departures scheduled in July at New York's three main airports is higher by nearly 2 percent, or an average 28 additional flights per day, according to data compiled by consulting firm Oliver Wyman. Schedules aren't as full between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. because of caps, and that should reduce delays in theory. But airlines have pumped in lots more flights on either side of the late-afternoon rush, risking even more congestion.

"There's a lot of potential for another bad summer," said John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Association.

Travelers could be excused for thinking that things couldn't get much worse. Last year, record delays coupled with full and overbooked flights, airline understaffing, computer breakdowns at the FAA and labor issues with pilots and air-traffic controllers left many passengers stranded — some for multiple days. Others fumed during interminable waits aboard marooned aircraft and long lines at airports.

In addition, the FAA has added uncertainty for travelers by suddenly changing how it handles maintenance oversight. That move was spawned by criticism that inspectors were too cozy with airlines. A series of sudden aircraft groundings imposed by the FAA wreaked havoc for hundreds of thousands of travelers this spring. Last Friday, the government said it will study how it handled forced groundings for maintenance compliance, some of which didn't involve immediate flight safety concerns. But more disruption could arise this summer.

"To be sure, our year is off to a rocky start," the chief executive of AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, Gerard Arpey, wrote to his employees last week.

As uncertain as travel could be, it's clear consumers will also be paying more. Airlines have imposed new fees that could catch infrequent fliers off guard, such as charging $50 round-trip to check a second piece of luggage. Carriers have pushed fares higher, too, because of massive increases in fuel costs, but competition from discounters has tamped the impact some.

In the first two months of the year, average domestic fares were up 5.7 percent compared with last year, according to the Air Transport Association, and airlines have pushed through more price increases for summer travel. says summer flights to Europe, hit with hefty fuel surcharges, are priced about 10 percent higher this year, compared with last summer.

There are some hopeful changes for travelers this summer. The Transportation Security Administration is deploying new equipment at many airports and trying out new configurations of security lanes to speed up screening. Perhaps more significantly, the TSA is sending all of its screeners to 12 hours of retraining this year. Also, TSA chief Kip Hawley says checkpoints should be fully staffed this year by Memorial Day.

"We're expecting a very crowded summer," Mr. Hawley said.

Last year, the number of passengers involuntarily bumped from flights for which they had bought confirmed tickets was up 48 percent in the third quarter over 2006. Travelers complained that airlines had too much financial incentive to bump low-fare customers for high-dollar last-minute business travelers because compensation they had to pay involuntarily bumped passengers hadn't increased in 30 years.

The DOT agreed, and next month will double what airlines have to pay bumped passengers. Compensation could be as much as $800, depending on how long it takes the airline to reroute customers to their destinations. In addition, the new rule includes more regional jets — it applies to any flight with 30 seats or more, instead of 60 seats or more in the past. (Remember, customers involuntarily bumped can demand cash rather than vouchers toward future trips.)

Airlines and government officials say the peak-hour flight caps imposed at Kennedy International Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport, along with slot restrictions already in place at La Guardia Airport, should reduce delays in New York, which typically cascade through the nation's air travel system.

But with more total flights at New York airports, congestion could roar back this summer. With a storm in the morning, for example, delays would likely build throughout the day because airlines have increased the total number of airplanes at New York airports.

JetBlue Airways Corp. chief executive David Barger thinks de-peaking will make JFK, his airline's home, more predictable and avoid some of the pain of last year, when one-hour waits to takeoff were the norm.

"What we saw last year is not acceptable," said Mr. Barger. "Will New York have delays? Of course. But they should be less severe."

Despite the higher fares, travelers are still buying trans-Atlantic tickets and airlines are continuing to add new flights. Trans-Atlantic capacity, measured in available seat-miles, will be up 6.4 percent this summer from last year, and fares will be higher, too, according to Craig Jenks, president of Airline/Aircraft Projects Inc., his consulting firm.

"Summer is going to be quite good for airlines, and not particularly good for consumers," he said.

One way to beat high prices: Book flights to new destinations where airlines haven't yet built consistent traffic. Delta Air Lines Inc., for example, added flights to Lyon, France, and Paris Orly Airport this year from New York.

For a June 20-27 round trip, a Dallas-Amsterdam ticket was priced at $1,355 on KLM last week, 20 percent less than a nonstop Dallas-Paris ticket ($1,692 on American). Air France's Los Angeles-London flight for those dates was priced at $1,394, while Air France's Los Angeles-Paris nonstop was $1,680.

Cheaper, but by no means cheap.

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