Why Your Flight Might Be on Time This Summer

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Did you know your summer vacation depends on a couple of guys sitting in a dark room in northern Virginia?

Actually, it's more like a couple dozen men and women sprinkled throughout a massive, oval-shaped chamber the size of a football field that sits near Dulles Airport. Huge, colorful maps are displayed on the walls, and people hunch over computer screens searching for the smallest disturbance that will tip the delicate balance that is the nation's air traffic system into chaos. A real-time snapshot of the U.S. airspace (depicted about five feet high) shows the enormity of the task: up to 5,000 planes overhead at any one moment.

This Star Trek-like operation is the Federal Aviation Administration's "Command Center," which controls every inch of the sky, every moment of the day (and night).

Starting at 7 a.m., and at least every two hours after that, the FAA's air traffic managers, the airlines, and — starting next month — the business jet crowd, get on a conference call to talk about the weather. These conversations aren't the ones you have at the bus stop: these are short, intense and often heated discussions about who has to pay when Mother Nature starts throwing her weight around with storms that can bobble a 747.

It's these teleconferences that decide what airports will have to stop all traffic (and for how long), who gets delayed, and how many airplanes get the chance to take off on time. Carriers can — and do — use these calls to argue to allow their planes to fly through weather rather than around it (which causes delays and even more congestion).

The individual airlines use the conclusion agreed to from each call to decide which flights to cancel or delay. Since weather accounts for a whopping 65 per cent of all delays (and in 2000, one in four flights was delayed), a Command Center conference call can make the difference between you over-nighting on a cot in Chicago or alternatively, enjoying your summer vacation in that exclusive resort you booked months ago.

And it only took the industry about half a century to come up with the idea. Before last summer, the FAA largely called the shots and the airlines were left to delay flights and grumble about incompetent government bureaucrats. Now they're all in it together. And the system of the FAA and the airlines sharing information and analysis, which was created and installed for the first time only last summer, actually works very well.

For example, one big achievement is instead of using competing and contradictory information, now the airlines and the FAA use the exact same weather predication map. Another: there is a "National Playbook," which, much like a NFL version, sketches out in precise detail how players will react to certain situations — only the participants are airplanes, and they maneuver around thunderstorms, not 350-lb. defensive linemen.

If this collaborative system hadn't been up and running, the entire air traffic network could have imploded several times between June and September, 2000. As it was, the season went down as the worst in history in terms of delays. But it could have been worse.

So how's your holiday shaping up this summer? It's actually looking pretty good. At a conference this week in Washington, representatives from the FAA, airlines and the air traffic controllers were almost looking forward to this summer. The FAA is confident it has worked out the kinks, the controllers are getting more timely information about changes affecting them, and the airlines that didn't get on board last year realize that if they don't play, they don't have a say. So they're getting on board — some airlines, such as Northwest and Continental, are getting so cozy with the FAA that they've instructed their personnel, including pilots, not to blame a delay on air traffic, controllers or the FAA.

So if you have the bad luck to take off late one day this summer and the captain comes on the loudspeaker to explain it's all the government's fault, he (or she) is probably lying.

Most likely, it's that there's still too little too tarmac out there for too many flights. Or it's the weather.