It has been a summer of record delays, and the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration threw down the gauntlet to the nation's airlines Tuesday, warning them to take a hard look at their schedules, which she said "aren't worth the electrons they are printed on."
FAA Administrator Marion Blakey made those comments in her farewell speech before Washington, D.C.'s, Aero Club. Blakey is leaving her job this week, at the end of her five-year term at the helm of the agency charged with overseeing air travel in the United States.
Blakey said, "I predict passengers will continue to be fed up with delays, and that's got to be taken more seriously by all of us and particularly our airlines."
She added that airlines can control their own schedules, and that they "need to take a step back on the scheduling practices that are at times out of line with reality."
If Delays Continue, Federal Government May Step In
Delays are particularly bad right now at the New York area airports. Blakey said to airlines that they need to make schedule adjustments there.
"If airlines don't address this voluntarily," she said, "don't be surprised when the government steps in."
The main concern is at Newark and JFK airports, where Blakey later told ABC News, "at some times of the day there are schedules that can't physically be operated except under optimal circumstances, and we don't have many optimal days."
She warned that the government could impose the type of solution they did at Chicago's O'Hare airport in 2004. The two main carriers there, United and American, had scheduled more flights an hour than the airport could handle -- and that was causing delays in Chicago and throughout the country.
In November 2004 the FAA forced the two carriers to limit arrivals during peak hours. In the year following that move, delays dropped by 24 percent.
Blakey said if there aren't changes by next summer, "we will hit the wall again."
Airlines Willing to Talk, Fearful of Change
The president of the Air Transport Association, which represents the major carriers, insisted that "airlines are happy to talk to the government about scheduling." However, Jim May said, because of anti-trust concerns, the airlines can't sit down together to work out reduced schedules.
For competitive reasons, no one airline wants to cut departures or arrivals on its own, for fear another airline will step in and take advantage of that.
Airlines insist their schedules simply respond to the demands of passengers.
May said his group has suggested to the Department of Transportation that it appoint a "czar" to take a look at all the factors leading to aviation delays in the New York area -- and try to come up with a comprehensive solution.
The FAA acknowledges there are anti-trust issues the airlines need to be careful about. But Blakey said, "Given the summer we've had, airlines need to make short-term adjustments for the greater good."
Meantime, with the summer travel season over, there may be at least a bit relief for a travelers -- for now.