Stuck waiting: ground delays at US airports on the rise

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NEW YORK (AP) — On a recent morning, Delta Air Lines Flight 435 pushed back early from the gate at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. Passengers watched the safety video and settled in for a six-hour trip.

Then they waited. And waited.

Still within sight of the gate, their jet sat motionless due to airport congestion. It wasn't until 30 minutes after passengers buckled in that they were finally in the sky.

It's a scene playing out across the country. According to an Associated Press analysis, airplanes spent 23 minutes and 32 seconds, on average, taxiing between gates and runways during the first nine months of the year. That's the longest it has been since the Bureau of Transportation Statistics started tracking taxi times in 1995 and a 50-second increase over last year's average.

For passengers, the rising delays add to the frustrations of travel. A plane might land early but then sit waiting for a gate to open up. Flights are still arriving "on time" but only because airlines have increased scheduled flying times to account for the added taxi times. The Delta flight made it to the gate in San Francisco 10 minutes ahead of schedule despite the takeoff delays.

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Stuck waiting: ground delays at US airports on the rise

36. YVR - Vancouver International

A traveler arrives at Vancouver International Airport (YVR) in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013. The number of international visitors to Canada plunged 20 per cent since 2000 even as global travel soars, according to a sobering report being released Thursday by Deloitte Canada. Photographer: Ben Nelms/Bloomberg via Getty Images

35. PDX - Portland Oregon International

People gather around the United ticket counter at Portland International Airport Monday, Dec. 22, 2008, in Portland, Ore. As of Monday morning, 124 arrivals and departures had been canceled at Portland International Airport, but some flights were getting out. About 200 people spent the night at the airport Saturday, 300 on Sunday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

34. AUS - Austin-Bergstrom

Travelers walk the main concourse at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas, on Friday, Sept. 14, 2007. Jim Smith, who oversees the city-owned airport in Austin, Texas, needed help fast. Mexico's no-frills airline, VivaAeroBus, wanted to make Austin its first U.S. destination, and Smith had no free gate space. (Photo by Jack Plunkett/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

33. YYC - Calgary International

The Air Canada Airbus A319 jet that was forced to land and unload injured passengers at Calgary International Airport after encountering trouble and making an unscheduled landing on Thursday Jan. 10, 2008. The Rocky Mountains are visible in the background. At least 14 people aboard were injured when the Airbus A319 hit turbulence during a cross-country flight, an official said.(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Larry MacDougal)

32. PHX - Phoenix Sky Harbor

The silhouettes of travelers are seen as a United Continental Holdings Inc. plane takes off from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. Yields on benchmark securities climbed to almost two-year highs as consumers spent more on travel and tourism while manufacturing expanded modestly from early July through late August, according to the Federal Reserves Beige Book. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

31. TPA - Tampa International

A Delta jet takes off as others are prepared for flights Tuesday afternoon April 22, 2008, at Tampa international Airport in Tampa, Fla. Delta Air Lines Inc., the nation's third-largest carrier, said Wednesday its loss widened in the first quarter to a whopping $6.39 billion because of soaring fuel prices and the steep decline in the company's market value. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

30. SEA - Seattle-Tacoma International

Passengers in the C Terminal at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) head to their gates on June 2, 2013, in Seattle, Washington. Seattle, located in King County, is the largest city in the Pacific Northwest, and has become a hub for many European and Asian global business destinations. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

29. YOW - Ottawa International

Travellers wait for baggage at Ottawa International Airport in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2011. Canada's trade deficit widened more than forecast in June, signaling that the economy may have stalled or even contracted in the second quarter. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

28. MSP - Minneapolis-St. Paul International

Northwest Airlines jets wait at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport 30 May, 2006 in St.Paul, MN. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

27. SAN - San Diego International

A Southwest Airlines Co. airplane takes off at San Diego International Airport in San Diego, California, U.S. on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. Airlines must reconsider buying new or used aircraft as rising interest rates increase ownership costs, which could outweigh fuel savings at lower prices. Photographer: Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

26. DTW - Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County

Vehicles sit at the curb outside the McNamara Terminal, serving Northwest Airlines among others, at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2008. Delta Air Lines Inc. and Northwest Airlines Corp. pilots are working to find a compromise over union seniority, a hurdle to the merger that would create the world's biggest carrier, people familiar with the talks said. (Photo by Fabrizio Costantini/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

25. ATL - Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson

Delayed and stranded passengers waiting for flight information fill cubicles throughout Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport after a snow storm on January 10, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue declared a state of emergency because of snowfall and ice across Atlanta and Georgia. A winter storm stretched across the Southeast as freezing rain and sleet followed on the heels of a heavy snow that blanketed the region. Airtran & Delta cancelled all flights out of Atlanta due to icy and snowy weather conditions. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

24. DCA - Ronald Reagan Washington National

Holiday travelers line up on Thanksgiving eve for a security screening before boarding their flights on November 27, 2013, at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

23. BOS - Boston Logan

The lines moved fast at TSA security checkpoints at Logan Airport's Terminal A. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

22. CLT - Charlotte Douglas International

A US Airways plane prepares for take-off at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport on January 16, 2009 in Charlotte, North Carolina. US Airways flight 1549 crashed into the Hudson River in New York City on January 15, 2009 shortly after take-off from LaGuardia Airport on its way to Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

21. DEN - Denver International

Security lines at Denver International Airport are long but moving fast, November 26, 2014. The airport was busy with thanksgiving travelers. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

20. SFO - San Francisco International

Passengers walk to the JetBlue Airways departure gate October 17, 2014 at the San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

19. STL - Lambert-St. Louis International

Lambert-St. Louis International Airport is seen Saturday, April 23, 2011, in St. Louis. The National Weather Service confirmed that it was a tornado that struck the airport on Friday night sending people scurrying for shelter as plated glass shattered around them and closing the airport while also causing damage in several St. Louis County communities. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

18. BWI - Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall

Travelers walk in front of arrival and departure screens at the Southwest Airlines ticket counter on Wednesday, November 23, 2005 at the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Chris Greenberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

17. YUL - Montreal Pierre-Elliot Trudeau

People gather to watch the Airbus A380 as it makes its first landing at the Pierre-Elliott Trudeau airport, 12 November, 2007 in Montreal, Quebec. Saudi Arabian billionaire Prince Walid Bin Talal on Monday ordered an Airbus A380, making him the first private buyer of the next generation super jumbo aircraft. AFP PHOTO/David BOILY (Photo credit should read DAVID BOILY/AFP/Getty Images)

16. LAS - Las Vegas McCarran

In this June 9, 2012 file photo, visitors crowd the new Terminal 3 at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. On Thursday, July 25, 2013, airport officials at McCarran International Airport were working to fix a downed passenger processing system. They weren't sure what caused the problem. In the meantime, some airline companies are manually checking in passengers. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File)

15. MCI - Kansas City International

With no planes in sight, a lone passenger waits out the ice storm cancellations at Kansas City International Airport in Kansas City, Missouri, Tuesday, December 11, 2007. (Photo by Tammy Ljungblad/Kansas City Star/MCT via Getty Images)

14. IAH - George Bush Intercontinental

Lines of passengers wait at a security checkpoint 22 September 2005 before flying out of George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas, as people from south Texas evacuate in advance of Hurricane Rita. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

13. FLL - Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood

Jason Cohen of New York City, catches a few last-minutes of sun before he was to catch a scheduled flight home to LaGuardia Airport in New York, Wednesday, February 2, 2011, at the Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Almost 40 planes were parked at the airport Wednesday because of flight cancellations caused by the snow and ice storm in the Midwest and East Coast. Cohen said he was an 'optomistic,' traveler and thought he would get out today. (Joe Cavaretta/Sun Sentinel/MCT via Getty Images)

12. MCO - Orlando International

In this Friday, May 25, 2012 file photo, travelers arrive at Orlando International Airport make their way to baggage claim in Orlando, Fla. Flying this summer doesn’t need to be expensive, as search engines, social media, creativity and flexibility can make finding bargain airfares easier. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

11. MDW - Chicago Midway

Long lines of passengers are at the TSA security check point at Chicago Midway International Airport Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, in Chicago. The bitter weather comes after a heavy snowstorm hit much of the region last week. More than 1,000 flights were canceled Sunday at airports throughout the Midwest. More than 400 flights were cancelled at Chicago's airports Monday.(AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

10. PHI - Philadelphia International

A U.S. Airways jet is seen amidst snow blown by gust of wind at the Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia, Monday, Dec. 27, 2010. A powerful East Coast blizzard menaced would-be travelers by air, rail and highway Monday, leaving thousands without a way to get home after the holidays and shutting down major airports and rail lines for a second day. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

9. MIA - Miami International

An airline passenger walks past a multi-color art installation as he walks towards his plane at the Miami International Airport, Thursday, July 3, 2014. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

8. DFW - Dallas-Ft. Worth International 

This 17 September, 2001, file photo shows an American Airlines jet taking off from Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport in Dallas, Texas. American Airlines, the world's biggest carrier, announced 19 September, 2001, it was cutting least 20,000 jobs following the terrorist attacks against the US. No alternatives were being offered to fired employees because of the company's cash crunch after the 11 September attacks, in which two American Airlines jets were among the four lost, it added. 'This is, without a doubt, the most difficult thing I have had to do in my two decades at American,' chairman and chief executive Don Carty said in a letter to employees. AFP PHOTO/Paul BUCK (Photo credit should read PAUL BUCK/AFP/Getty Images)

7. YYZ - Toronto Pearson

Travellers scour the baggage claim at Toronto's Pearson airport for their luggage. Cold weather has caused a series of delayed or cancelled flights. January 7, 2014. (Randy Risling/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

6. LAX - Los Angeles International

Aircraft await on the runway to take off at the Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles April, Apr. 30, 2014. Flights from airports in the Los Angeles area were grounded for more than an hour Wednesday afternoon due to computer failure at an air traffic control facility in the region. (AP Photo)

5. JFK - New York John F. Kennedy

In this Oct. 30, 2014 photo, passengers line up to pass through security before boarding flights at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. A snowstorm is forecast for Wednesday and Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, for parts of the East Coast, potentially snarling holiday travel plans. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

4. ORD - Chicago O'Hare

Dennis McCormack of Rockaway, N.J. checks the departure board only to find out that his flight to Newark, N.J. has been canceled at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Friday, Sept. 26, 2014. All flights in and out of Chicago's two airports were halted Friday after a fire at a suburban air traffic control facility sent delays and cancellations rippling through the U.S. air travel network. Authorities said the blaze was intentionally set by a contract employee of the Federal Aviation Administration and had no ties to terrorism. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

3. IAD - Washington Dulles

United Airlines passenger Hazel Rimler waits at the ticket counter of Washington Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Va., Saturday, June 18, 2011. Rimler said she has been waiting for her flight to Orlando, Fla., since 8:45 p.m. EDT Friday, June 17. United Airlines computers crashed at at about 8:15 p.m. EDT interrupting departures and reservations and disrupting the airline's website. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)

2. EWR - Newark Liberty International

United Airlines jets are parked on the tarmac at Newark Liberty International Airport, Tuesday, July 22, 2014, in Newark, N.J. In a sign of increased caution about flying near combat zones, U.S. and European airlines halted flights to Israel Tuesday after a rocket landed near Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines suspended service between the U.S. and Israel indefinitely. The actions come days after a Malaysia Airlines jet was shot down over eastern Ukraine with 298 people on board. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

1. LGA - New York LaGuardia

Travelers wait on line to check-in at the Central Terminal at LaGuardia Airport in the Queens borough of New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2010. Passengers stranded when airlines canceled more than 6,000 flights amid a snow storm in the eastern U.S. may wait days for another flight as carriers move aircraft and search for seats on crowded planes. Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images


The creep in taxi times is attributed to a series of changes: massive runway construction projects at some of the nation's busiest airports; schedule changes that increase the number of flights at peak hours; and new, distant runways that relieve congestion but require more time to reach.

"It's death by a thousand cuts," says Vikram Krishnan, a partner in the aviation practice of consultancy Oliver Wyman.

The problems on the ground are costing airlines dearly.

"Two, three, four, five minutes in a fleet of 500 planes a day is significant amounts of money," says aviation consultant Mike Boyd.

That translates into hundreds of millions of dollars extra in operating costs so far this year, according to AP calculations factoring in average operating costs including pilot and flight attendant salaries.

Airlines say the longer taxi times are baked into schedules, so planes generally still arrive on time. So far this year, 79 percent of flights have been at the gate within 15 minutes of their scheduled time, the best performance since 2012.

Passengers might be spending more time on planes, but airlines are better managing their expectations by increasing scheduled times. That masks some of the problems, like taxi delays.

For instance, ten years ago the average scheduled time from gate to gate between Chicago and San Francisco was 4 hours and 32 minutes. Today, flights are scheduled for an extra 11 minutes, according to — even though airports in the two cities are the same 1,846 miles apart.

All it takes are a few problems at some of the country's busiest airports to drive up the national taxi time average.

The top offender in the past year was Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Of all the additional taxi time minutes in the nation, one of out of five extra minutes can be traced back to delays at O'Hare.

Planes in Chicago this year spent an average of 1 minute and 18 seconds extra navigating the taxiways. And taxi times are up 3 minutes and 24 seconds from five years ago, a 20-percent increase. Those delays add up considering that O'Hare had 227,358 flights during the first nine months of this year.

Most of the problems at O'Hare stem from a construction project that is reconfiguring taxiways and runways. The long-term goal is to reduce congestion but delays racked up during the construction. A new runway did just open, but further away from the airport's terminals. Longer trips from that runway are not yet reflected in government data.

In an email to the AP, O'Hare officials note that taxi times "will fluctuate as construction phases are started or finished" and that the work is helping to reduce delays in the sky around the airport.

Delays have also been climbing at the two main airports in Dallas, but for different reasons.

At Dallas Love Field, taxi times are up two minutes, or 13-percent, so far this year. That's the highest percent gain of any major airport. Home to Southwest Airlines, Love Field saw the number of scheduled flights during the first nine months of this year spike 41 percent to 47,438 after the repeal of a federal law restricting most long-distance flights from that airport.

Terry L. Mitchell, the airport's assistant director for operations, says the increase in flights, construction projects and the use of a further runway to reduce noise concerns of neighbors all led to the run up in taxi times. Now that construction is complete and the airport at capacity, he expects no further growth in taxi times.

Across town at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, taxi times climbed two and a half minutes, or 11.7 percent. In this case, the increase was due to new scheduling procedures by American Airlines, which carries 82 percent of the passengers at the airport.

American groups together large numbers of flights in Dallas — and its other hubs — to allow passengers easy connections. In March, the airline reconfigured its schedule so more flights arrive and depart in a narrower band of time. That meant shorter layovers in the airport, more connection options for passengers and more revenue opportunities for the airline. However, the adjustments also extended taxi times. American accounted for those increases in its schedule.

"When they try to cram as many flights as possible into their hubbing complexes," says airline consultant Paul Sterbenz, "they create logjams."


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