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Back to the Northwest

by Jack Penning

Posted on June 28, 2006 at 10:52 AM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 4 at 2:45 PM

Sorry about the lack of updates here over the past couple of weeks. I've been away... traveling all over the country on a summer jaunt. Really, it was a baseball trip, to see my beloved St. Louis Cardinals play three games, in two cities, over four nights.

My father, Jack Penning, Jr., and me at the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

The Cards won two of three, so I was fortunate in that respect. I wasn't so fortunate when it came to my flights.

Of the six flights I took, over a 10-day period, just three arrived on-time (I use the Department of Transportation definition: within 15-minutes of the scheduled arrival time). The other three were all more than 1:30 late. All three of those delayed flights could technically be blamed on the weather: high winds in Chicago, thunderstorms north of St. Louis, and thunderstorms in Denver. But the real problem is too many flights, and not enough capacity in the system.

Air traffic is finally breaking pre-2001 records. This summer, 200-million Americans will take a trip by air... 2-million more than the previous record. The number of flights the airlines offer is rebounding, too... which means crowded airports, like O'Hare, LAX, and Atlanta Hartsfield, are again bumping capacity limits. They're fine when the weather's okay. But a little weather problem means massive delays, that ripple across the country.

My flight approaches Chicago O'Hare Airport, after a 1:30 delay.

On Monday, June 19th, I flew from St. Louis to O'Hare. The weather at both airports was beautiful: sunny, some high clouds, and breezy. Too breezy at O'Hare. The airport could only use two of its six runways, because of the wind. That meant all the air traffic was forced into a third the normal capacity. Which meant we sat on the ground at Lambert Field for an hour and a half, waiting for a slot to land in Chicago.

Last Saturday, I was flying from Denver back to PDX. A storm hit just before our flight was due to leave. We were delayed. But we were lucky. The storm caused some planes to divert, stranding crews in other airports. There were enough pilots in Denver to handle all the flying. So three other Portland-bound flights were cancelled, stranding hundreds in Denver until the next morning... and even longer, in some cases. Because flights are so full this summer, it's much harder to just "grab the next one out." It can take airlines days to work through the backlog of stranded passengers.

Delays happen. Cancellations are inevitable. And it's only going to get worse, as we choose to fly in record numbers.

Have a summer travel story? I'd love to hear about it. E-mail me at