Fly The Slow, Crowded Skies

At the Federal Aviation Administration's command center in Herndon, Virginia, computer screens highlight the nation's crowded skies, reports CBS News Correspondent Cynthia Bowers.

Heavy air traffic is easy to see over hubs like Chicago's O'Hare. Take a plane into or out of this airport and there's a good chance you'll wind-up waiting, grounded, like businessman Larry Flight.

"This is the second or third time this week my flight has been delayed," says Flight.

The problem isnÂ't just in Chicago. Monte Belger of the FAA says delays are up almost 20 percent nationwide.

"Weather is clearly the primary factor," says Belger. "Over 70 percent of all delays are caused by weather."

But according to longtime aviation consultant Mike Boyd, the problem is with the FAA not the weather.

"Blaming it on the weather is a cop out," says Boyd. "Thunderstorms 80 miles west of Chicago can shut down all westbound flights because the air traffic control system is too incompetent to route airplanes around it."

Airline Transport Association spokesperson Carol Hallett agrees. She charges the FAA is slow to react to changing weather.

On July 31, she says, "The forecast was for thunderstorms from N.Y. to Kansas. The thunderstorm did not materialize as forecast, but the air traffic control system did not remove all of the delay tactics that they had set up."

In Chicago, where flight delays are up 18 percent over last year and a whopping 65 percent over 1997, weather does get a large part of the blame. But statistics also show airlines are scheduling more flights per minute than even the world's busiest airport can handle.

"When you have 20 departures scheduled in the same minute, they're all not going to get off the airport at the same time," says Belger. "I mean, that's just fact. "

Hallett says, "If the passengers want to fly, all of them at 11:00 in the morning, that's when everyone will schedule their flights, and the FAA should provide the support so that those flights will go on time."

To do that, the FAA recently gave its Herndon command center more authority. Now when regional control towers make decisions that cause unnecessary delays, Herndon has the power to override them.

On Thursday, representatives from the airline industry and the FAA will testify before Congress to help find solutions to the airline jam.

In the meantime, passengers will have to keep dealing with all those delays.