Agreement reached to cut O'Hare traffic

United, American to trim 37 daily peak-hour arrivals

August 19, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Under threat of forced action by federal regulators, American Airlines Inc. and United Airlines Inc. have agreed to the third round of flight reductions this year to reduce delays at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

But American said in a statement that a long-term solution would need to focus "on increasing capacity at O'Hare rather than restricting schedules."

The announcement yesterday by the Transportation Department predicted the latest cuts would be effective Nov. 1 through April. The agreement extends reductions made this year and calls on American and United to reduce operations another 5 percent.

For American, that will mean eliminating or rescheduling 17 arrivals between noon and 9 p.m. Another 20 of United's incoming flights will be affected. The two airlines control 86 percent of traffic at the nation's busiest airport.

FAA officials said some of O'Hare's other 13 carriers would lose a handful of flights. But the group would have a net gain of three flights, as the smallest carriers with fewer than eight daily arrivals pick up flights.

At a news conference in Chicago, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said the pact would cut flight delays by 20 percent before the end of this year. With air travel reaching pre-Sept. 11, 2001, records, two-thirds of O'Hare's 3,000 daily flights experience delays.

"We worked hard to balance the need to provide vibrant air service and grow the economy with the need to clear the skies over O'Hare," Mineta said.

Summit of airlines

Last week, federal officials summoned executives from 16 airlines to a highly unusual summit and told them to cut back on flights or risk caps on peak schedules. Federal officials praised the carriers yesterday for their voluntary agreement.

"We were able to reach a cooperative, voluntary agreement with the carriers," said Marion C. Blakey, the Federal Aviation Administration chief.

Both airlines issued statements supporting the pact but said it was a stopgap measure.

United has 650 flights daily at O'Hare. American has 546.

Under the agreement, domestic airlines must reduce peak hourly flights to 88, from the existing 100. Federal officials were increasingly worried, because schedules after the existing agreement expires Oct. 31 showed as many as 132 hourly arrivals.

FAA officials said the agreement announced yesterday would bring operations at O'Hare in line with capacity. The airlines will not have to cut all the affected flights, having the option to reschedule them outside peak travel hours.

Congestion at O'Hare has increased as air travel has slowly recovered from the terrorist attacks. And delays at O'Hare ripple throughout the nation as aircraft needed at up to 35 other airports are held up in Chicago.

The negotiations underscored the fierce competition in the industry and revealed efforts by American and United to maintain their O'Hare market share and block low-fare carriers from increasing their foothold.

Public filings

In public filings with the FAA, both said additional flight cuts should be shouldered by smaller airlines. The carriers said they needed to maintain their Chicago hubs to support domestic and international networks.

"There should not be a system which expects a hub carrier such as American to reduce its O'Hare schedules but at the same time allows other carriers to increase their schedules," American said.

The airline added that flight limits at Chicago could impair air service to small markets, a hot-button issue for members of Congress from rural districts.

Aviation regulators also heard from smaller carriers, including upstart discounter Independence Air. Independence is to shift two of 12 flights at O'Hare to nonpeak times.

Independence previously operated as United Express, flying as United's commuter partner. In its FAA filing, the airline blamed delays in Chicago on American and United but said yesterday it was happy with the latest agreement.

"We think that the result for us is a fair one," said Independence spokesman Rick DeLisi.

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