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It's a plane, it's a delay, it's ... Chicago's O'Hare Airport

An unprecedented meeting on congestion at the nation's busiest airport may herald change - or just higher fares.

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Carol Luxton could handle the delays, irritating as they are, if only the airlines would give passengers a bit of notice.

"My flight from Birmingham was supposed to leave at 11:55," she recounts as she waits in O'Hare Airport's busy baggage claim. "At 11:50 they told us the plane wouldn't even arrive until 2:30." By then it was too late to alert her husband, who drove to the airport from their home in Sycamore, Ill., only to have to turn around again. By the time she finally landed in Chicago, she was 4-1/2 hours late.

For frequent travelers in and out of America's busiest airport, Luxton's tale is all too common, one more saga that travelers trade about hours waiting at gates or on tarmacs. Even those who never set foot in O'Hare feel the effect, since US airports' "hub and spoke" system means that delays at major hubs quickly ripple to other cities.

The O'Hare situation has gotten so bad - a record 14,500 delays in May alone - that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has called on all domestic carriers serving the airport to meet Wednesday, an unprecedented action to try and solve a mess caused, at least in part, by overscheduling and zealous competition among the airlines.

The goal for Wednesday's meeting is for the airlines to voluntarily reduce flights at peak times enough to lessen congestion, but the FAA has also said it will consider mandatory flight caps.

"So far, they've done this in a voluntary, collaborative way," says Vahid Motevalli, director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University. "The issue's going to be once you start crossing the line into regulatory mode.... If [the FAA goes] down the path of trying to impose it, then they have to be able to do this for every airport, and it's counter to the deregulation that went through in the late 1970s."


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