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Flight delays, crowded skies may squeeze summer travelers

Story Highlights

• Record number of travelers expected to fly this summer
• FAA: New Airspace Flow program reduced 2006 delays by 9 percent
• Experts: Corporate jets, more travelers, outdated equipment are straining system
By Mary Snow
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Major flight delays in the northeastern United States and Atlanta, Georgia, this week could be a telling sign of what is in store for air travelers this summer.

Despite the Federal Aviation Administration's efforts to minimize delays from storms, some say delays will probably be the worst ever. Many airline industry analysts believe it has opened a window into an overtaxed air traffic system that badly needs to be updated.

New York's JFK Airport was a scene of frustration and confusion on Tuesday night as storms forced cancellations of more than 300 flights at area airports.

"Nobody's doing anything. Nobody knows anything. Its chaos," said one unidentified but obviously exasperated traveler.

Long lines snaked through the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport again on Wednesday after severe storms grounded planes Tuesday night. (Watch as airport delays ground passengers)

These are the kinds of delays the FAA is hoping to crack down on this summer as it expects more travelers than ever to take to the skies. The FAA announced in May that it was ramping up a program to cut delays due to summer storms. It's called the Airspace Flow program and it gives airlines a choice of accepting delays or taking a longer route to avoid storms.

"This year we're expanding it, not just with an eye to the weather but also with an eye to the congestion that we're seeing in the airspace," FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey announced in May.

The program has been in place for two summers in the northeast United States. But critics at New York's LaGuardia International Airport say the program is not much help.

"From a LaGuardia perspective, I've been there almost 4 years now, about 3.5 years, and I have not seen very much change in how we do business," said Dan Horowitz, an air traffic controller.

The FAA says the program is working and reduced delays by 9 percent last year.

But even supporters of the program say it's just a temporary fix for a bigger problem.

"I think this summer will be a bellwether for how bad the system can get, unfortunately," said James May of the Air Transportation Association.

Industry watchers say the system is getting squeezed by more passengers, more planes, equipment in need of overhaul and air traffic controllers who say they're overtaxed.

The ATA says another factor is adding to the crowded skies -- corporate jets, which numbered about 1,800 in 1970 and currently number about 18,000 and climbing.

"We're pretty much at a saturation point and at this point, we're just trying to find some Band-Aids to make the situation better instead of actually fixing the problem," said Ben Mutzabaugh, a reporter and author of the "Today in the Sky" blog on USAToday.comexternal link.

Girl waits for flight

A young girl waits with her family to check in for their flight at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.


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