Expanded FAA program targets weather delays

 - July 5, 2007, 4:55 AM

The FAA has expanded its Airspace Flow Program, which gives airlines the option during the peak summer season to accept delays for flights scheduled to fly through storms or to fly 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 9 percent compared with the year before. That saved the airlines and the flying public approximately $100 million annually, the FAA claimed.

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

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, the FAA said.

According to the agency, “dynamic” programs will be introduced in other areas to target storms with “surgical precision” as they develop and move. Airspace Flow Programs also are being used in conditions not related to weather, such as severe congestion near major cities.

Delays Reduced
The FAA conceived airspace flow programs two years ago and developed them 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.

“Last year, we implemented 36 airspace flow programs on 19 days from June through August,” said FAA Administrator Marion Blakey. “We realized a 21-percent reduction in delays.”

In another development, the agency rolled out a new software program that ensures airports affected by bad weather receive the maximum number of flights they can safely accept. During storms, arrival slots often open up due to delayed or canceled flights.

The new software program, called “adaptive compression,” automatically identifies slots that might go unused and fills those slots with the next available flight. The software tool was launched in March.