What Unites Europe? Delayed Flights

This has been the worst year ever for flying on the Continent

For Alfonso Di Ianni, it was another week of schedule-wrecking delays in Europe's unfriendly skies. On a recent Monday morning, Di Ianni, a Geneva-based vice-president for Oracle Corp., rose at 5:30 to catch a British Airways flight to London for a client meeting. But an hour after the scheduled 8:45 departure, his plane was still on the runway at Cointrin Airport, awaiting clearance for takeoff. It got to Heathrow 75 minutes late. Tuesday, his flight to Amsterdam on British Midland Airways was delayed 45 minutes, and on Wednesday, his Lufthansa flight to Munich was 90 minutes late. "It's a terrible way to live," says Di Ianni.

His experience only confirms what statistics show: This is the worst year ever for air travel in Europe. A third of intra-European flights take off at least 15 minutes late, with average delays running more than 40 minutes. In the U.S., 24% of flights run late, and delays are shorter. Apart from causing passenger misery, the punctuality problem has swelled business costs as road warriors elect to fly a day early or make last-minute purchases of second tickets when their original flights are held up.

The culprit is Europe's air-traffic system, a patchwork of 49 control centers run by national governments. Each has its own curbs on the use of air space, limiting available routes, so planes are funneled into a few busy corridors. Since the centers' computer systems differ, controllers have trouble seeing where congestion is developing in time to divert planes to less-crowded routes. Experts say a pan-European system would improve the situation, but that's unlikely to be created soon.

In the meantime, travel agents such as Alain Jadot of Paris' Cap Voyages agency advise clients to take early-morning flights, since delays tend to snowball as the day goes on. Passengers also can try to avoid airports where tardy takeoffs are most likely. Identifying them became easier this spring when the Association of European Airlines published for the first time an airport-by-airport listing of delay rates (table). For example, Milan's Malpensa airport is twice as bad as the city's other airport, Linate. In Paris, Charles de Gaulle is worse than Orly. So you might be better off using discount carriers originating from Orly and other secondary airports.

Travelers can ask travel agents to override itineraries programmed into reservation systems, which often don't allow enough time to change planes. Herman Mensink, European director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, says he routinely requests overrides for connections through Frankfurt. "If you are flying into Frankfurt and have 45 minutes to connect, you're not going to make it," he says. And Frankfurt isn't even on the 10-worst list.

Increasingly, business travelers are turning to Europe's expanding network of high-speed trains, which beat flying on many routes when times for ground transportation, check-in, and boarding are factored in. Rail travel generally costs less, and delays are rare. Lieke Buss, corporate travel manager for ING Bank in Amsterdam, says ING employees often ride the rails to Paris, just 4 hours and 15 minutes away on the sleek red Thalys train inaugurated last year. The Eurostar, which whisks passengers from London through the Channel Tunnel to Paris or Brussels in less than three hours, has lured away so many travelers that airlines have cut fares on those routes. Eurostar's round-trip weekday rate to Paris is $389 vs. $430 or so on British Air and Air France. Transatlantic passengers landing in Paris, Zurich, Frankfurt, and other major cities can easily hop onto high-speed trains.

But trains aren't the answer for everyone. Di Ianni's trips to London, Amsterdam, and Munich would have taken longer had he gone by rail. For frequent flyers such as Di Ianni, getting around Europe still means long airport stays.

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