$16.7 billion: Sky no limit to cost of airline delays on passengers

Long line at O'Hare AirportThe next time your flight is late, you'll have 16.7 billion reasons to be angry about it. That's how much it costs us in dollars every year when airlines are tardy, according to a new study.

The National Center of Excellence for Aviation Operations Research (NEXTOR), a group of academics from UC-Berkeley, M.I.T. and other universities, released a report to the FAA detailing how delays drain our collective wallet. We have the key points to save you the pain of reading the 91-page PDF -- and perhaps prevent you from being late.
-- The $16.7 billion total includes the obvious lost time from delays, cancellations and unmade connections. But NEXTOR is trumpeting its real-life approach to the stats. It also tabulated the extra bags of Doritos, breath mints and other items you might purchase during your additional time on the ground. The hotel room you'll need if you get completely stranded also accounts for a hefty chunk. And your concern that you'll never get to Dallas on a same-day-as-your-meeting flight, so you fly the night before and have to book an extra night's stay? That's in there, too.

The airlines should be extra-motivated to move their tails when they read the grim findings:

• Carriers shelled out $8.3 billion annually in what the industry considers direct costs. Those include the additional hours paid out for crew, maintenance and fueling. And those padded schedules that airlines draw up to look like paragons of punctuality -- you know, the three-hour ETA for what really is a one-hour hop -- also add to the debt of delays because fewer flights can be squeezed into the day. That costs airlines money.

Seemingly unrelated areas of commerce will share the outrage, as the study, based mostly on 2007 performance, extended beyond the airport.

• The gross domestic product takes a hit in the several billions annually ($4 billion alone in 2007) from companies not being able to conduct business because of delays.

• Consumer avoidance because air service has been so poor results in another $3.9 billion in lost revenue as folks either find another form of transportation or don't go at all.

The numbers are so staggering that PhoCusWright, an air-travel market researcher, said a Congressional hearing will result in the FAA and jet executives batting the blame back and forth.

The latest news is slightly encouraging. Flights on major carriers arrived on schedule 81.7% of the time in August, compared to 76.7% in July, according to the Department of Transportation. The FAA and the report believe replacing radar with GPS by 2025 will improve promptness, but the overhaul will cost tens of billions, according to the Washington Post.

For the sake of our budget and our patience, we hope it'll fly.
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