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GAO-08-1041R: 

United States Government Accountability Office: 
Washington, DC 20548:

September 17, 2008: 

The Honorable Ted Stevens: 
United States Senate: 

Subject: Commercial Aviation: Impact of Airline Crew Scheduling on 
Delays and Cancellations of Commercial Flights: 

Dear Senator Stevens: 

Media coverage of airline service problems, combined with congressional 
hearings on these problems, has put flight delays and cancellations in 
the spotlight. Department of Transportation (DOT) data show that flight 
delays and cancellations have generally increased over the last decade. 
Since 1998, the number of flight delays and cancellations has increased 
62 percent nationwide, while the number of scheduled flight operations 
[Footnote 1] has increased about 38 percent. Also, a May 2008 report by 
the Joint Economic Committee found that, collectively, passengers were 
delayed 320 million hours in 2007. The report also estimated that 
domestic flight delays last year cost the U.S. economy as much as $41 
billion and raised airlines' operating costs by $19 billion.[Footnote 2]

In 2007, airlines reported to DOT that 73 percent of flights were on 
time, while 24 percent were delayed and 2 percent were canceled. 
[Footnote 3],[Footnote 4] Of those flights that were delayed, airlines 
reported the majority of flight delays were caused by 3 categories of 
delays: a previous aircraft arriving late; the national aviation 
system--a category of delays that encompasses a broad set of 
circumstances, such as congestion or bad weather; and air carrier--a 
category of 42 potential causes of delay that includes, but is not 
limited to, problems associated with how the airline schedules its 
flight crews.[Footnote 5] With demand pushing more flights into an 
already congested airspace, one delayed or canceled flight can create 
ripples in the system, causing other flights to be delayed or canceled. 
In such an environment, the effective scheduling of available flight 
crews is key to better ensuring the on-time performance of flights.

You asked that we assess commercial airline policies and practices for 
crew scheduling. Accordingly, this report addresses the following 
questions: (1) How do airlines schedule flight crews? (2) To what 
extent, if any, does crew scheduling contribute to flight delays and 
cancellations? (3) What steps do stakeholders report might reduce 
delays and cancellations due to crew scheduling?

To respond to these objectives, we reviewed scheduling practices and 
related information about flight delays and cancellations. We requested 
interviews with the 12 largest domestic airlines, as measured by 
passenger volume in 2007. We conducted semistructured interviews, and 
gathered and analyzed data from 11 of these airlines as well as data 
from DOT.[Footnote 6] Data on crew-scheduling-related delays and 
cancellations are not publicly reported, and we were not able to 
independently verify the accuracy of these data. However, we asked 
airlines about steps they take to verify the accuracy and reliability 
of their data and corroborated the findings arising from these data 
with aviation stakeholders and academic experts. In addition, the data 
from the airlines may not be comparable due to internal differences in 
how they gather these data. We also interviewed officials from the 
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other stakeholders, including 
professional associations representing airlines and crew members, 
academics, and an airline passenger consumer advocacy group. (See enc. 
I for additional information on our scope and methodology.) 

We conducted this performance audit from March 2008 to September 2008 
in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. 
Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain 
sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our 
findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe that 
the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and 
conclusions based on our audit objectives.

Results in Brief:

Airlines use computerized optimization models to schedule flight crews 
while adhering to federal regulations and contractual agreements. As a 
fundamental safety tenet, all airlines are subject to Federal Aviation 
Regulations that establish maximum crew flight times and minimum rest 
requirements.[Footnote 7] For example, a commercial pilot can fly a 
maximum of 8 hours during a duty period (or workday).[Footnote 8] In 
addition, airlines must adhere to conditions in their collective 
bargaining agreements, which they negotiate with the labor 
organizations representing their employees. The collective bargaining 
agreements often address the crews' work conditions; nonunionized 
airlines often have company policies that address similar work 
conditions. Labor is generally one of an airline's largest costs, along 
with fuel. Consequently, airlines use computerized models to schedule 
crews in a manner that helps to minimize these costs, while adhering to 
the Federal Aviation Regulation limitations and to collective 
bargaining agreement conditions.

Flight delays and cancellations caused by crew scheduling alone appear 
to be rare and frequently arise from other problems. According to the 
11 airlines with whom we spoke, flight delays and cancellations 
attributed to crew scheduling are minimal. Detailed data provided by 6 
of the airlines indicated that, in 2007, delays due to crew scheduling 
accounted for no more than about 3 percent of any airline's flights, 
and that cancellations due to crew scheduling were less than one- 
quarter of 1 percent of all flights for any airline. Most other 
stakeholders similarly indicated that crew scheduling is not a major 
contributor to delays and cancellations. Airlines and other 
stakeholders identified other problems as being more significant causes 
of flight delays and cancellations, including aircraft maintenance and 
problems with the national airspace system, such as congestion or bad 
weather. Additionally, airlines reported that delays and cancellations 
due to crew scheduling are often the result of other delays, which can 
create a "ripple effect" when crews and aircraft needed for subsequent 
flights are not available on time. For example, if an incoming flight 
arrives at an airport late and the aircraft and its crew are scheduled 
for two separate subsequent flights, then the first delay can cause two 
additional flights to be delayed.

Stakeholders identified several ongoing and potential actions that 
airlines and the government could take to reduce delays and 
cancellations attributable to crew scheduling. Airlines have taken 
several steps to reduce the potential for delays and cancellations due 
to crew scheduling, including adding time to flight schedules to 
account for delays, using reserve crews, positioning crews in 
anticipation of expected weather, and scheduling crews to stay with the 
same aircraft between flights. Additionally, several of the airlines 
reported taking steps to avoid delays in the New York area--a region 
known for airspace congestion--such as not scheduling crews on often- 
delayed flights scheduled to leave New York at later times in the day, 
and avoiding scheduling connecting flights out of New York to an 
airline's hub airport. Stakeholders also suggested a number of steps 
that the federal government could take, including modernizing the air 
traffic control system; improving East Coast operations, particularly 
in the New York region; and revising the Federal Aviation Regulations 
pertaining to duty and rest hours. Finally, in July 2008, the federal 
government began a test program designed to evaluate expedited access 
to secure areas of airports for properly credentialed commercial flight 
crew members, which could reduce the time that flight crew members 
spend in security screening lines.

Background:

Since June 2003, DOT has required domestic airlines with at least 1 
percent of the industry's annual revenue to report the reasons that 
flights are delayed or canceled using the following five broad 
categories:

Late-arriving aircraft means that a previous flight using the same 
aircraft arrived late, thereby causing the subsequent flight to depart 
late. This category comprises delays (not cancellations) and does not 
provide the original source of delay for the late-arriving aircraft, 
such as a delay in the national aviation system.

National aviation system delays and cancellations refer to a broad set 
of circumstances attributable to the national airspace system, such as 
airport operations, heavy traffic volume, and air traffic control. This 
category also includes any nonextreme weather condition that slows the 
operation of the system, such as wind or fog, but does not prevent 
flying.

Air carrier includes 42 potential causes of delay and cancellation that 
are within the control of the airlines, such as maintenance, awaiting 
the arrival of connecting passengers, baggage loading, and crew issues.

Extreme weather delays and cancellations occur when serious weather 
conditions prevent the operation of an aircraft. Examples of this kind 
of weather include tornadoes, snowstorms, and hurricanes.[Footnote 9]

Security includes evacuation of an airport, reboarding due to a 
security breach, and long lines at the passenger screening areas.

Airlines reported to DOT that the majority of delays during 2007 were 
attributed to the late-arriving aircraft, national aviation system, and 
air carrier categories. As illustrated in figure 1, delays reported 
under the air carrier category accounted for nearly 29 percent of 
flight delays last year, just below the 33 percent of delays attributed 
to the national aviation system and about 34 percent of delays 
attributed to late-arriving aircraft.[Footnote 10] 

Figure 1: Causes of Flight Delays, 2007: 

[Refer to PDF for image] 

This figure is a pie-chart depicting the following data: 

Causes of Flight Delays, 2007: 
Late arriving aircraft: 33.7%; 
National aviation system: 33.2%; 
Air carrier: 28.9%; 
Extreme weather: 4.0%; 
Security: 0.3%. 

Note: Total may not add up to 100 percent due to rounding. Percentages 
are based on the number of flight operations reported under each 
category. 

Source: DOT. 

[End of figure] 

In July 2008, we reported that the data collected by DOT on the sources 
of delays provide information about where delays occurred and what 
caused the delay, but that these data are incomplete.[Footnote 11] 
Specifically, the DOT-reported categories are too broad to provide 
meaningful information on the root causes of delays. For example, 
delays attributed to the airlines could consist of various causes, such 
as a late crew, aircraft maintenance, or baggage loading, but these 
more specific causes are not captured in DOT data. In addition, the 
largest source of systemwide delays--late-arriving aircraft, which 
represents about 34 percent of delayed flights (see fig. 1)--masks the 
original source of delay. For example, the original source of delay for 
a late-arriving aircraft could be because of the air carrier, security, 
extreme weather, or the national aviation system--or a combination of 
one or more of these sources.

Airlines Schedule Flight Crews Using Optimization Models While Adhering 
to Federal Regulations and Contractual Agreements:

Crew scheduling is part of a larger airline scheduling process. 
Airlines we interviewed reported a similar scheduling process that goes 
through chronological phases (see fig. 2).

Figure 2: Airline Scheduling Process: 

[Refer to PDF for image] 

This figure is an illustration of the airline scheduling process, as 
follows: 
Schedule design; 
Fleet assignment; 
Crew scheduling. 

Source: GAO. 

[End of figure] 

First, the marketing department of the airline designs a schedule by 
determining the flights to be flown and departure times during a given 
time period, such as a month. Subsequent planning decisions are based 
on this schedule. Second, the airline assigns the aircraft to each 
flight to maximize revenues and minimize costs. The type of aircraft 
assigned determines the qualifications and quantity of crew needed. The 
final step--crew scheduling--assigns crews (pilots, and flight 
engineers, if needed, in the cockpit and flight attendants in the 
cabin) to the aircraft.

Airlines use computerized optimization models to develop crew schedules 
and allow flight crews to bid on the schedules. Labor is generally one 
of an airline's largest costs, along with fuel. Consequently, airlines 
use computerized models to schedule crews in a manner that helps to 
minimize these costs. Five of the 11 airlines we interviewed use a 
preferential bidding system (PBS) to produce monthly crew assignments 
based on crew member preferences. PBS incorporates a crew member's 
preplanned activities, such as vacations, training, medical 
appointments, and military leave, when developing the crew member's 
schedule for the month. Four airlines reported using a "bid line" 
system, while the remaining 2 airlines reported using a bid line system 
as well as a PBS. In bid line systems, the airline develops monthly 
schedules and crew members bid to work those schedules. This system 
does not take into account conflicts that may arise with preplanned 
activities, such as vacations, training, medical appointments, and 
military leave. As such, conflicts may arise, and those conflicting 
trips must then be assigned to other crew members. Regardless of the 
approach selected, the airline will have schedule-holding crews and 
reserve crews. Schedule-holding crews have a known schedule of flights 
for the month. In contrast, reserve crews do not have a schedule of 
flights, but are "on call" to fly during certain days throughout the 
month when the airline needs crew members for particular flights.

As they develop crew schedules, airlines must adhere to federal 
regulations and collective bargaining agreements (CBA). All 11 airlines 
we interviewed cited Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) requirements as 
the primary constraint in building a crew schedule. As a fundamental 
safety tenet, all airlines are subject to FAR flight time limitations 
and rest requirements and must work within these primary constraints 
when designing schedules.[Footnote 12] The current FAR limits a 
commercial pilot's flight time to 8 hours in a duty period, 100 hours 
in a calendar month, and 1,000 hours in a calendar year, with certain 
exceptions.[Footnote 13] The FARs also specify the minimum number of 
hours of rest that pilots must have between duty periods.[Footnote 14] 
Furthermore, pilots can only fly those aircraft types for which they 
are qualified.[Footnote 15] Each airline must also consider the crews' 
work conditions, which are established in its CBA, or in its company 
policies if the airline is nonunionized and does not have a CBA. For 
example, the airlines we interviewed reported that these requirements 
cover monthly flight time; time between flights; and any leave, 
training, vacation requests, or trip preference requests. The airlines 
reported monthly flying hours from a low of 60 to 63 hours a month to a 
high of 90 to 92 hours a month. Stakeholders noted that the closer 
pilots are scheduled to the FARs' monthly maximum of 100 hours, the 
greater the reduction in scheduling flexibility. This limits the 
airlines' use of pilots to make schedule adjustments when there is a 
delay from a major disruption, because pilots would no longer have room 
in their schedules for additional hours. However, all of the airlines 
we interviewed have reserve crews that can fly during these disruptions 
to help get the airline get back on schedule. 

Delays and Cancellations Caused by Crew Scheduling Appear Rare and 
Frequently Stem from Other Problems: 

According to the airlines, most aviation industry associations, and 
academic experts we interviewed, crew scheduling is not a major source 
of flight delays and cancellations. Stakeholders pointed to other 
problems as being more significant causes of delays and cancellations, 
including aircraft maintenance and problems with the national airspace 
system, such as congestion or bad weather. Additionally, airlines 
reported that delays and cancellations due to crew scheduling are often 
the result of other delays, which can create a "ripple effect" when 
crews and aircraft scheduled for subsequent flights are not available 
on time.

Stakeholders Report That Crew Scheduling Is Responsible for Few Delays 
and Cancellations: 

According to officials at the 11 airlines we interviewed, crew 
scheduling causes few flight delays and cancellations.[Footnote 16] Six 
airlines provided detailed information on flight delays and 
cancellations. This detailed information showed that for each of these 
airlines in 2007, crew scheduling caused delays for less than about 3 
percent of flights and cancellations for less than one-quarter of 1 
percent of flights. The other 5 airlines we interviewed did not provide 
detailed data, but officials for those airlines also stated that crew 
scheduling causes few delays and cancellations. Two of these airlines 
told us that, on the basis of their data, about 5 to 6 percent of 
delays and/or cancellations were due to crew scheduling, while 2 other 
airlines estimated that crew scheduling accounted for less than 10 
percent of delays within the air carrier category.

Among the other factors within the airlines' control, airlines reported 
that aircraft maintenance and time needed to board passengers are 
greater causes of delay than problems with crew scheduling. DOT data 
show that air carrier delays accounted for about 7 percent of flights 
in 2007.[Footnote 17] The percentages of flights delayed due to air 
carrier causes were about the same for the 11 airlines we interviewed, 
affecting about 6 percent of flights in 2007. According to the DOT 
data, cancellations due to the air carrier represented about 1 percent 
of all U.S. carrier flights in 2007;[Footnote 18] among the 11 airlines 
we interviewed, cancellations due to the air carrier were slightly less 
than 1 percent of flights in 2007.

Most other stakeholders we interviewed, including academic experts and 
almost all aviation industry associations, shared the view that crew 
scheduling was not a major cause of flight delays and cancellations. 
Like the airlines, these stakeholders identified other causes as being 
more prominent in this area, such as problems with the national 
airspace system related to congestion or weather. Conversely, one 
aviation industry association characterized crew-scheduling problems as 
common and often leading to delays and cancellations, although this 
association also indicated that other issues are more prevalent causes 
of air carrier delay, such as maintenance and problems with the 
national airspace system.

Airlines Report That Crew-Scheduling Delays Are Often the Result of 
Other Delays in the National Airspace System: 

According to the airlines, when delays associated with crew scheduling 
do occur, they are frequently the result of other types of delays in 
the national airspace system, such as those caused by congestion or bad 
weather. As we have previously mentioned, crew scheduling is a complex 
process that puts crews in position to serve flights. In some 
instances, crew scheduling can respond to problems, but other problems 
will disrupt the airlines' crew schedules. A ripple effect may occur 
when delayed or canceled flights create problems for subsequent flights 
because the crew or equipment for those flights is delayed or out of 
position. This problem can propagate further delays when the crew and 
plane from a delayed or canceled flight are needed for separate 
subsequent flights but are not available on time. When such crew-
related delays are linked to previous flights where the aircraft 
arrived late, then the underlying cause of delay may not be known. The 
following text and figures 3 through 5 illustrate various delay 
scenarios and their potential causes and results:

Scenario 1: Crew Arrives Late: 

In the scenario depicted in figure 3, the crew arrives late for its 
first flight, which causes a delay. This delay is reported to DOT as an 
air carrier delay, since it is considered within the control of the 
airline. According to the airlines, this scenario is relatively rare, 
although they reported some isolated instances of such crew-related 
problems, such as crews calling in sick during labor disputes or crews 
being out of position because of schedule disruptions caused by severe 
weather. This type of delay could also arise if crews arrive late the 
previous day and have to extend their rest time to comply with federal 
requirements for pilot rest, as we have previously discussed. Airlines 
reported having varying percentages of crew members who commute from 
outside the area where they are based, with estimates ranging from 19 
to 55 percent, although these percentages vary greatly by city. 
Although commuting problems for crews that live outside the area where 
they are based can contribute to this type of delay, airlines and the 
aviation industry associations that represent pilots and flight 
attendants told us that such problems were not a major issue, and 
several airlines reported taking steps to lessen the potential for such 
delays, such as getting crews in position early if they expect bad 
weather to disrupt commuting.[Footnote 19]

Figure 3: Scenario 1 - Crew Arrives Late: 

[Refer to PDF for image] 

Illustration: 

Flight is delayed because crew does not arrive for original report time 
and departing aircraft i delayed more than 15 minutes; 
Arrival at airport; 
Recorded DOT flight delay: "Air Carrier" (crew scheduling). 

Source: GAO. 

[End of figure] 

Scenario 2: Aircraft Arrives Late:

In the second scenario, depicted in figure 4, a previous flight (flight 
#1) is delayed, which causes a later flight (flight #2) to be delayed; 
the crew remains with the airplane for both flights. Since flight #2 is 
delayed because flight #1 arrived late to the airport, the flight #2 
delay would be attributed to late-arriving aircraft and not to the 
reason that flight #1 was delayed. For example, if the flight #1 delay 
was due to the air carrier, the flight #2 delay would not be attributed 
to the air carrier, but would rather be reported as a delay due to late-
arriving aircraft. When airlines report flight delays due to late- 
arriving aircraft, the underlying cause of the delay--whether it is the 
air carrier, the national aviation system, or any other source--is not 
reported. Some of the stakeholders we interviewed pointed out, and we 
have previously reported, that the late-arriving aircraft delay 
category effectively masks the underlying cause of delay.[Footnote 20] 
While four airlines told us they could track the underlying cause of 
delay, two other airlines said they do not track the underlying cause 
of delay.

Figure 4: Scenario 2 - Aircraft Arrives Late: 

[Refer to PDF for image] 

Illustration: 

Flight #1, Aircraft A, Crew A: Flight delay for any reason of more than 
15 minutes causes departing aircraft to be delayed; 
Arrival at airport; 
Flight #2, Aircraft A, Crew A: Recorded DOT flight delay: :Late-
Arriving Aircraft." 

Source: GAO. 

[End of figure] 

Scenario 3: Aircraft Arrives Late and Crew Changes Planes:

In the third scenario, depicted in figure 5, two flights are delayed 
because a previous flight arrives late, potentially creating a ripple 
effect. The aircraft (aircraft A) from flight #1 is scheduled to be 
flown by a different crew (crew B) for flight #2. Therefore, flight #2 
is delayed because the aircraft is not available, and the delay is 
reported to DOT as being due to late-arriving aircraft. Additionally, 
the crew (crew A) from flight #1 is scheduled to switch planes (from 
aircraft A to aircraft B) and fly flight #3. Therefore, flight #3 is 
also delayed, although this delay would be due to a late crew and 
reported to DOT as an air carrier delay, regardless of the reason that 
flight #1 was delayed. If, as a result of earlier delays, crew A could 
not fly flight #3 because it would exceed their maximum allotted duty 
time, the flight might be canceled if no reserve crew was available to 
fly the aircraft. Depending on the severity of the delay, there is a 
potential for these delayed flights to create additional downstream 
delays, thereby propagating delays throughout the air travel system. 
According to the airlines we interviewed, these types of delays and 
cancellations--those caused by earlier problems--are the most frequent 
reason for crew scheduling delays and cancellations.

Figure 5: Scenario 3 - Aircraft Arrives Late and Crew Changes Planes: 

[Refer to PDF for image] 

Illustration: 

Flight #1: Flight delay for any reason of more than 15 minutes causes 
departing aircraft to be delayed; 
Arrival at airport; 
Crew A transfers to Aircraft B, Crew B takes over operations of 
Aircraft A; 
Flight #2: Recorded DOT flight delay: Late-Arriving Aircraft." 
Flight #3: Recorded DOT flight delay: "Air Carrier" (crew scheduling). 

Source: GAO. 

[End of figure] 

Stakeholders Identified Several Ongoing and Potential Actions That 
Airlines and the Government Could Take to Reduce Crew-Scheduling Delays 
and Cancellations:

Airlines have taken several steps to reduce the potential for delays 
and cancellations due to crew scheduling, including adding time to 
flight schedules to account for delays, using reserve crews, 
positioning crews in anticipation of expected weather, and scheduling 
crews to stay with the same aircraft between flights. Additionally, 
several of the airlines reported taking steps to avoid delays in the 
New York region--a region known for airspace congestion--such as not 
scheduling crews leaving New York for later flights and avoiding 
scheduling connecting flights out of the New York region to an 
airline's hub airport. Most stakeholders also reported that modernizing 
the national airspace system would further reduce both crew-scheduling 
delays, and flight delays and cancellations overall.

Airlines Have Implemented Several Methods to Reduce Crew-Scheduling 
Delays and Cancellations in Problem Areas:

The 11 airlines with whom we spoke reported taking a number of common 
actions to reduce delays and cancellations associated with crew 
scheduling. These airlines track delays and cancellations to identify 
patterns, underlying causes, and solutions to delays and cancellations. 
The 11 airlines identified the following actions:

* Eight airlines reported that they added time in their schedules for 
flights or connections, particularly in congested areas, to account for 
expected delays. This added time creates a buffer, thereby reducing the 
likelihood of a delay.

* Seven airlines reported using their reserve crews to fly during 
schedule disruptions to help get the airline back on schedule. The 
reserve crews take the place of the crew members delayed on a previous 
flight, thereby helping to reduce a departure delay.

* Five airlines reported scheduling crews and aircraft together to 
reduce delays associated with crews changing planes, such as when 
making a connection at a congested hub (see fig. 5). In general, 
however, airlines noted that since pilots are not allowed to fly as 
many hours during a duty day as flight attendants or the aircraft, 
limiting the schedules of flight attendants and aircraft to fly with 
the same cockpit crew during the day would be inefficient and more 
expensive.

Other actions that airlines reported included making last-minute 
changes in crew schedules to use available crews for flights when 
scheduled crews are delayed or otherwise unavailable, and getting crews 
in position early if the airline expects poor weather.

Six airlines reported taking specific measures to address delays in the 
New York region, which is known to be a major source of delays in the 
United States.[Footnote 21] For example, one airline told us that crews 
on flights originating in the New York region and other East Coast 
airports, particularly later in the day, will not be scheduled to fly a 
connecting flight, thereby reducing the potential for flight delays and 
cancellations from these airports to cause later flights in the system 
to be delayed, as depicted in figures 4 and 5. Another airline avoided 
scheduling connecting flights from New York through its major hub. 
Officials at one airline said they intentionally do not serve the New 
York region, since doing so is known to cause operational problems. For 
example, one airline reported over 60 percent of its delayed flights 
were attributable to problems in the New York region, such as a lengthy 
ground delay that could potentially disrupt the pilot's schedule if 
such a delay might cause the pilot to exceed the daily limit on duty 
time.

Stakeholders Identified Several Government Actions to Reduce Crew- 
Scheduling-Related Delays and Cancellations:

The majority of the airlines, aviation industry associations, and 
academic experts we interviewed stated that the national airspace 
system was the major source of delays and cancellations, and many told 
us that the federal government should take steps to improve the system. 
These stakeholders attributed many crew-scheduling delays to a 
precursor event in the system--such as a ground, weather, or air 
traffic control delay--as opposed to a crew not getting to the airplane 
for its first flight of the day. To help reduce crew-scheduling-related 
and other delays and cancellations, the stakeholders suggested a number 
of actions the federal government could take, which included 
modernizing the national airspace system and improving East Coast 
operations, particularly in the New York region. As we have previously 
reported, FAA faces significant challenges in keeping the nation's 
current airspace system running as efficiently as possible, given the 
increasing demand for air travel.[Footnote 22] DOT and FAA were 
implementing several actions that are intended to reduce flight delays 
for the summer 2008 travel season, but these actions will likely have a 
limited effect on reducing delays. Due to the high proportion of delays 
at the three major New York area airports, many of these actions are 
specifically designed to address congestion in the New York area. In 
fact, one-third of aircraft in the national airspace system move 
through the New York area at some point during a typical day, and 
delays in this region can have a disproportionate impact on delays 
experienced throughout the rest of the system. However, these ongoing 
and planned initiatives are not intended to significantly boost 
capacity, but rather to enhance efficiency and better manage delays. 
[Footnote 23]

Most aviation experts believe the long-term solution to reducing delays 
depends largely on expanding capacity through the Next Generation Air 
Traffic Management System (NextGen)--a complicated effort to modernize 
the air traffic control system by 2025. NextGen will use satellite- 
based technologies and state-of-the-art procedures to handle the 
increasing volume of air traffic, while further improving safety and 
security. The transformation of the national airspace system is one of 
the federal government's most complex undertakings. Although NextGen is 
a collaborative effort, the bulk of the responsibility for successful 
implementation and transition belongs to FAA. As we have reported, the 
agency faces a number of management challenges as it begins 
implementing NextGen systems and procedures.[Footnote 24] These 
challenges include funding NextGen, hiring and retaining the right 
skill set within FAA, developing a facility plan for NextGen, meeting 
the research and development needs of NextGen, and establishing 
credibility with stakeholders regarding the agency's NextGen efforts.

Another action the airlines suggested that the federal government could 
take to add flexibility to the crew-scheduling process was to review 
the federal regulations on pilot duty and rest requirements. The FARs 
currently limit a pilot to 8 hours of flying during a duty period for 
safety reasons. Five airlines we interviewed reported that the federal 
aviation regulations regarding pilot duty time should be revised. For 
example, one airline told us that it would be more efficient for them 
and increase their scheduling flexibility if a pilot's schedule was 
limited to 12 hours of duty time, rather than 8 hours of flight time, 
which could allow a pilot to fly across the country and back within one 
duty period. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), an airline pilot 
union, also supports overhauling current flight and duty time 
regulations for commercial airline pilots, but for different reasons. 
ALPA stated it is opposed to any flight time increase beyond 8 hours in 
a duty day, citing concerns about current flight-crew-scheduling 
practices. ALPA also stated that pilots are flying more hours and 
working more days with longer duty hours since September 11, 2001, and 
that this change, along with contract revisions resulting in pay 
reductions, has already forced pilots to fly increased hours.

Finally, the federal government has recently begun a test program 
designed to evaluate expedited access to secure areas of airports for 
properly credentialed commercial flight deck crew members at three test 
airports. The Transportation Security Administration launched a 60-day 
test program in July 2008 called Crew Personnel Advanced Screening 
System, or CrewPASS,[Footnote 25] which allows uniformed eligible 
flight deck crew members to enter the secure area of these checkpoints 
via the exit lane of the security checkpoint after presenting their 
airline-issued identification and another form of identification to 
transportation security officers (TSO). TSOs will check these 
credentials via a secure, real-time flight deck crew member database 
that includes a picture and other information to verify the 
individual's identity. Flight deck crew members who use this program 
are subject to random screening, observation by behavior detection 
officers, and other layers of security. ALPA stated that it supports 
this program because it should reduce the time that flight crew members 
spend in security screening lines, among other reasons.

Concluding Observations:

While safety is paramount to the airlines, containing costs is a 
fundamental goal for any industry. The airlines use computerized 
optimization models to schedule crews in a manner that helps minimize 
costs within the requirements of federal safety regulations, collective 
bargaining agreements, and flight schedules. Flight delays cost the 
airlines money. Therefore, it is in their best interest to avoid these 
problems, where feasible, particularly if they stem from situations 
within the control of the airlines, such as crew scheduling. As flight 
delays and cancellations have become more pervasive, airlines have 
taken steps to adjust their crew-scheduling practices to partially 
address this problem, such as by building extra time into flight 
schedules or keeping crews and aircraft together when flying in and out 
of congested airports where scheduled aircraft or crew changes compound 
delays. While such measures may help reduce problems with delays and 
cancellations, they alone cannot solve this problem. The majority of 
the stakeholders with whom we spoke told us that, in general, flight 
delays and cancellations are mostly rooted in systemic problems with 
the national airspace system. Ultimately, the necessary upgrades to the 
national airspace system infrastructure will require a broad-based 
effort on the part of government and nonfederal stakeholders. As we 
have previously reported, the current approach to managing air 
transportation is becoming increasingly inefficient and operationally 
obsolete.

Agency Comments:

We requested comments from the Secretary of Transportation, the 11 
airlines with whom we spoke, and the Air Line Pilots Association, but 
none were provided.

We are sending copies of this report to the Senate Committee on 
Science, Commerce, and Transportation, the House Committee on 
Transportation and Infrastructure, other interested congressional 
committees, the Secretary of Transportation, and the 11 airlines with 
whom we spoke. We will make copies available to others upon request. In 
addition, this report will be available at no cost on the GAO Web site 
at [hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov].

Should you or your staff have any questions about this report, please 
contact me at (202) 512-2834 or flemings@gao.gov. Contact points for 
our Offices of Congressional Relations and Public Affairs may be found 
on the last page of this report. Key contributors to this report were 
Mike Clements (Assistant Director), Lauren Calhoun, Bess Eisenstadt, 
Colin Fallon, Andrew Huddleston, Maren McAvoy, Sara Ann Moessbauer, and 
Josh Ormond.

Sincerely yours, 

Signed by: 

Susan Fleming: 
Director, Physical Infrastructure Issues:

Enclosure: 

Enclosure I: 

Scope and Methodology:

To respond to the objectives of this report, we reviewed scheduling 
practices and related information about flight delays and 
cancellations. We requested interviews with the 12 largest domestic 
airlines as measured by passenger volume in 2007 reported by the 
Department of Transportation (DOT).[Footnote 26] We conducted 
semistructured interviews with 11 of these airlines, which included a 
mix of legacy, low-cost, and regional airlines.[Footnote 27] We also 
interviewed officials from the Federal Aviation Administration; 
representatives of the Air Line Pilots Association, the Air Transport 
Association, the Association of Flight Attendants, the Regional Airline 
Association, and the Air Travelers Association; and academic experts 
from George Mason University, the Massachusetts Institute of 
Technology, and the University of Michigan.

To describe how airlines schedule crews and the policies and 
requirements that this process follows, we reviewed relevant federal 
regulations and collective bargaining agreements between airlines and 
pilots available from the National Mediation Board. We also discussed 
these policies and requirements with the airlines.

To evaluate the extent to which crew scheduling may contribute to 
flight delays and cancellations, we reviewed available data from DOT 
and gathered and analyzed data from the 11 airlines we interviewed. We 
interviewed DOT about the accuracy and reliability of its data on 
airlines' on-time performance, which include data on flight delays and 
cancellations, and determined that these data were sufficiently 
reliable for the purposes of this report. Additionally, the airlines 
from which we received data assured us that their data were audited and 
reviewed; therefore, we determined that these data were sufficiently 
reliable for the purposes of this report. Data on crew-scheduling- 
related delays and cancellations are not publicly reported, and we were 
not able to independently verify their accuracy. However, we asked the 
11 airlines that we interviewed about the steps they take to verify the 
accuracy and reliability of their data. We also corroborated the 
findings arising from these data with aviation stakeholders and 
academic experts who confirmed that the magnitude of delays and 
cancellations were consistent with the data provided by the 6 airlines. 
In addition, the data from different airlines may not be comparable 
because of differences in how the airlines gather these data. Finally, 
these data are illustrative of recent delays and cancellations due to 
crew scheduling at the 11 airlines we interviewed and do not 
necessarily represent the entire industry.

We conducted our work from March 2008 to September 2008 in accordance 
with generally accepted government auditing standards. Those standards 
require that we plan and perform the study to obtain sufficient, 
appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our findings and 
conclusions based on our study objectives. We believe that the evidence 
obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions 
based on our audit objectives.

[End of section] 

Footnotes: 

[1] "Flight" means any nonstop scheduled passenger flight segment with 
a specific flight number scheduled to be operated pursuant to a 
published schedule within a specific origin-destination city pair, 
other than transborder or foreign air transportation. See 14 C.F.R.  
234.2. 

[2] Joint Economic Committee Majority Staff, Your Flight Has Been 
Delayed Again: Flight Delays Cost Passengers, Airlines, and the U.S. 
Economy Billions (Washington, D.C.: May 2008). 

[3] Federal regulations require that domestic air carriers that account 
for at least 1 percent of domestic scheduled passenger revenues submit 
scheduled domestic flight performance data, including the cause of 
delays and cancellations, to DOT. See 14 C.F.R.  234.1-234.4. In 
2007, 20 carriers, operating about 70 percent of all scheduled 
departures and serving about 90 percent of all domestic passengers, 
reported these data. 

[4] Less than 1 percent of flights were diverted.

[5] Flight crews include the pilots and, in some cases, a flight 
engineer in the cockpit (cockpit crew) and the flight attendants in the 
cabin (cabin crew). In this report, "flight crew" pertains only to the 
cockpit crew, unless otherwise specified. In addition, this report 
references both the national aviation system--a formal category of DOT 
data to which flight delays and cancellations are attributed--and the 
national airspace system--the complex, interconnected, and 
interdependent network of systems, procedures, facilities, aircraft, 
and people that must work together to ensure safe and efficient 
operations. 

[6] We requested data from and interviewed officials representing 
AirTran Airways, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines and American Eagle, 
Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Northwest 
Airlines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, and US Airways. SkyWest 
Airlines did not respond to our request. 

[7] 14 C.F.R.  121.471.

[8] "Duty period" means the period of elapsed time between reporting 
for an assignment involving flight time and release from that 
assignment by the certificate holder conducting domestic, flag, or 
supplemental operations. See 14 C.F.R.  121.467. 

[9] Weather delays are captured in several categories and, according to 
DOT, a true picture of total weather-related delays requires several 
steps. First, DOT combines the extreme weather category and the weather 
delays from the national aviation system category. Second, DOT performs 
a calculation to determine the weather-related delays included in the 
late-arriving aircraft category. Airlines do not report the causes of 
late-arriving aircraft, but DOT makes an allocation using the 
proportion of weather-related delays to total flights in the other 
categories. Finally, DOT adds these three sources of weather-related 
delays to determine the share of all flight delays attributable to 
weather. DOT estimates that, in 2007, about 44 percent of all delays as 
measured in minutes were because of weather.

[10] Airlines report data to DOT in both minutes and the number of 
flight operations (flights). In our July 2008 testimony, we reported 
delays on the basis of the minutes of delay. In addition to delayed 
flights, crew-scheduling problems can result in canceled flights, which 
cannot be presented in number of minutes. Therefore, in this report, we 
report delays on the basis of the number of flights. As a result, the 
percentages in this report differ slightly from our July 2008 
testimony. See GAO, National Airspace System: DOT and FAA Actions Will 
Likely Have a Limited Effect on Reducing Delays during Summer 2008 
Travel Season, [hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-08-
934T] (Washington, D.C.: July 15, 2008).

[11] [hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-08-934T]. 

[12] 14 C.F.R.  121.471.

[13] 14 C.F.R.  121.471.

[14] 14 C.F.R.  121.471.

[15] Cabin crews have much more flexibility. For example, they have 
fewer limitations on the type of aircraft to which they can be assigned 
and can be scheduled up to 14 hours in a duty period.

[16] The results presented in this section pertain to 11 airlines that 
collectively served just over 75 percent of all airline passengers in 
2007 and reported flight delay and cancellation data to DOT. As such, 
these data are illustrative of recent delays and cancellations due to 
crew scheduling at these airlines and do not necessarily represent 
results for the broader industry. 

[17] Recently, the national aviation system and late-arriving aircraft 
categories both accounted for higher percentages of delays than air 
carrier: that is, about 8 percent for both categories in 2007 and about 
9 percent for both categories during the first 3 months of 2008. Delays 
for all reasons accounted for 24 percent of flights in 2007 and 26 
percent of flights during the first 3 months of 2008.

[18] Cancellations accounted for about 2 percent of flights in 2007 and 
about 3 percent of flights during the first 3 months of 2008.

[19] Some airlines we interviewed, as well as the industry association 
that represents airlines, explained to us that crew members are 
expected to report for work on time, and if a crew member is 
consistently late for duty because of commuting problems, this would be 
considered a performance problem, not a crew-scheduling problem. 
Pilots, like other professionals, are expected to report for work on 
time and rested, no matter where they choose to live. 

[20] [hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-08-934T].

[21] In July 2008, we reported that, for the past 10 years, the three 
principal commercial passenger airports in the New York region--Newark 
Liberty International, John F. Kennedy International, and LaGuardia-- 
have consistently ranked at or near the bottom of DOT's list of airport 
on-time arrivals and departures. Since flights in and out of the New 
York region typically account for about one-third of the total daily 
flights flown throughout the national airspace system, delays in this 
region can have a disproportionate impact on delays experienced 
throughout the rest of the system. See [hyperlink, 
http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-08-934T]. 

[22] GAO, Federal Aviation Administration: Challenges Facing the Agency 
in Fiscal Year 2009 and Beyond, [hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/cgi-
bin/getrpt?GAO-08-460T] (Washington, D.C.: Feb. 7, 2008).

[23] As we reported in July 2008, to address delay and cancellation 
problems beginning in summer 2008, DOT and FAA were implementing 
several actions intended to reduce delays that we have categorized as 
capacity-enhancing initiatives and demand management policies. Capacity-
enhancing initiatives are intended to increase the efficiency of 
existing capacity by reducing delays and maximizing the number of 
takeoffs and landings at an airport, while demand management policies 
influence demand through administrative measures or economic 
incentives. See [hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-08-
934T].

[24] [hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-08-460T].

[25] CrewPASS is expected to enhance security by providing flight crew 
members with a dedicated portal for access to airport secure areas. 
CrewPASS incorporates biometric processes with a secure database to 
verify pilot identity and employment status. 

[26] We requested data from and interviewed officials representing 
AirTran Airways, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines and American Eagle, 
Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Northwest 
Airlines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, and US Airways. Skywest 
Airlines did not respond to our request. 

[27] Legacy airlines predate airline deregulation of 1978 and all have 
adopted a hub-and-spoke network model that can be more expensive to 
operate than a simple point-to-point service model. Low-cost airlines 
have generally entered the market since 1978, are smaller, and 
generally employ a less costly point-to-point service model. Regional 
airlines generally employ much smaller (under 100 seats) aircraft and 
provide service under code-sharing arrangements with larger legacy 
airlines for which they are paid on a cost-plus or fee-for-departure 
basis to provide capacity. Many regional airlines are owned by a legacy 
parent, while others are independent.

[End of section] 

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