Airline schedules are designed to work like clockwork, only this clock has 70,000 moving parts: the number of commercial, military and private flights that occur every day in the continental United States. When a major airport is hampered by weather, every delayed inbound flight means every flight that follows for that aircraft is delayed as well. The delays don't just add up, they multiply.
A routine Delta Air Lines flight from Chicago to Atlanta became an odyssey one Friday this past spring when thunderstorms moved in on Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport. The L-1011 was forced into holding patterns in Alabama and various points in Georgia, and rerouted to Augusta for refueling, before it could finally land in Atlanta, four hours late. Many of the 136 connecting passengers on board, headed for 37 destinations in the South, West and Caribbean, missed their next flight.
The Federal Aviation Administration's Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, reported a total of 1,390 delays for all airlines that day, double its average. The Command Center helped alleviate the demand on Hartsfield by ordering planes scheduled to fly to Atlanta to stay on the ground until the weather, and the air traffic, cleared. Meanwhile, dispatchers at the Delta Operations Control Center in Atlanta scrambled to redirect flights already en route, and rearrange the day's schedule of departures, shifting planes and air crews around like chessmen on a board.
Delays are as serious for airlines as for the passengers they serve. Southwest Airlines has said that if, as a result of delays, each of its aircraft was forced to fly one less flight segment each day, the airline could not offer its competitive low fares. And Delta officials have suggested that if that airline's average flight is delayed by just four more minutes, Delta will no longer be able to call itself a scheduled airline.