The FAA-funded study looks at the cost to passengers for flight delays in 2007, the latest year for which complete data was available when researchers began working on the study.
Unlike past studies of the impact of flight delays, researchers looked more broadly at the costs associated with flight delays, including passengers' lost time waiting for flights and then scrambling to make other arrangements when flights are canceled.
The cost to airlines for delays was $8.3 billion, mostly for crew, fuel and maintenance. Overall, the cost was $33 billion, including to other parts of the economy. But one finding of the study is that more than half the cost associated with flight delays is borne by passengers.
Those costs likely were lower in the three years since 2007, due to the weakened economy. Air travel peaked in 2007 before the economy went sour. And so did flight delays and cancellations. In 2007, 1.3 million domestic flights were delayed and 119,000 flights canceled, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Last year, 85,000 flights were delayed and 63,000 canceled. Mark Hansen, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who led the study, said he believes 2007 is a more representative year "since we think that the weak economy isn't a permanent thing."
There will always be flight delays due to mechanical problems or weather, but they can be significantly reduced by expanding the capacity of the nation's airports and air traffic control system. The FAA is in the midst of a program to modernize the air traffic control system, replacing World War II-era radar with satellite-based technology. The program is expected to cost government and industry about $40 billion.
The FAA has said the program is necessary to meet an anticipated greater demand for air travel.
The Washington Post first reported the study's findings on Monday.