by Elana Varon

Innovations to Reduce Airline Delays? Giving Passengers Better Information Would Be a Start.

Nov 20, 20073 mins

I have relatives on the West coast, and every fall my family has a conversation about whether to fly out there for Christmas. It typically ends when someone (usually me), contemplates aloud the lines and the possibility of getting stranded by a blizzard. Moving people through airports is a problem that badly needs an innovative solution. Where is it in President Bush’s proposals last week to reduce airline delays ?

The holiday season fixes – opening up military airspace for the Thanksgiving weekend, putting a moratorium on non-essential FAA maintenance projects-make sense but they’re band-aids. I’m skeptical that much will come of the proposals to double the fines for airlines when they overbook flights. Even if the airline lobbyists don’t kill the idea, bigger fines are unlikely to stop the practice; as Robert Goodwin, managing vice president with Gartner, points out, it will merely shift the point at which the airlines’ financial models determine it’s unprofitable.

Revamping how air traffic is managed – a multibillion billion technology transformation to satellite-based navigation called NextGen – would be a major innovation. It would enable more flights to be in the air at once and to fly more directly to and from their destinations (the E.U. is working on a similar project). Henry Harteveldt, vice president and principle analyst with Forrester Research, observes we’re still managing air traffic the way we were doing it in the 1930s, designing flight paths based on communication with ground-based radar. But full deployment is years away (starting now with the most congested airports and rolling out through 2015 and beyond), and it depends both on Congress funding it and the airlines making the necessary investments in new instrumentation.

The most interesting idea is the government’s congestion pricing proposal. Making the airlines pay more to fly during peak periods would theoretically encourage more flights, with discounted rates, at less popular times of day or at secondary airports. But the devil is in the details. Passengers have choices now. You can avoid crowds and sometimes pay less by flying at odd times or by driving an hour to another airport (personally, I try never to connect through O’Hare). But mostly that’s not convenient, and passengers make pretty rational tradeoffs.Even if they complain about them.

Congestion pricing is only going to work, however, if passengers have better information on which to base their choices. Airline pricing would need to be much more transparent. Technology could make it easier for us to compare not only flights and our choice of dates, times and airports (still a klugey process), but also modes of transportation (it’s generally cheaper, and door to door just as fast, to take the train from Boston to Manhattan). Mashups that map airline delay data with time of day, passenger loads and weather conditions could change how we plan trips-and force the airlines to compete on price and performance.

Perhaps the power of the market could even force some radical rethinking of how the airlines move people from place to place. What do you think?