Video: Airline delays could be worst in history

By Travel writer contributor
updated 7/17/2007 9:11:33 AM ET 2007-07-17T13:11:33

It’s official: Long flight delays aren’t just a hassle. They can also be hazardous to your health.

That was the upshot of a recently released study from the World Health Organization (WHO) that investigated the risks of developing potentially deadly blood clots during extended travel.

The condition, known as deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, arises when blood flow in the lower extremities slows, leading to the formation of blood clots. (Immobility is a primary cause.) If the clot subsequently travels to the lungs, it can lead to pulmonary embolism and death.

The study showed that the risk of developing blood clots doubled after traveling four hours or more. In absolute terms, the risk is still small — one in 6,000 — but the numbers take on increased significance when you consider that U.S. airlines carried almost 750 million passengers last year. Many, of course, were on short-haul flights (and, presumably, at little risk), but the DVT issue raises a related question:

At a time when airline delays have reached historic highs, can anyone guarantee that any commercial flight, no matter how short the intended itinerary, won’t turn into a multi-hour misadventure?

More delays, longer delays
No, frankly, they can’t, and it’s only getting worse. According to Department of Transportation (DOT) statistics, just 73.58 percent of U.S. flights operated on time during the first five months of the year, the worst showing since the government began keeping records in 1995. The average length of delay is now 51 minutes, up five minutes from a year ago.

Actually, the average is probably even higher because of the way DOT tallies on-time statistics. If a delayed flight is subsequently canceled, it’s counted as a canceled flight, not a delayed one. That sounds logical, but try asking someone who has had a delayed flight canceled if they’re suddenly no longer delayed. On second thought, you probably better not.

Meanwhile, DOT statistics don’t differentiate between situations where passengers are delayed while they’re in the terminal and those in which they’re stranded on the tarmac. And although ultra-long runway waits constitute a small percentage of the overall delay statistics, recent news accounts paint an equally depressing picture:

On June 19, passengers in San Francisco were stuck on the ground on Cathay Pacific Flight CX873 for seven hours. The flight was subsequently canceled.

On June 21, Comair Flight 5637, scheduled to fly from New York to Detroit, sat on the tarmac at JFK for four hours. The flight was subsequently canceled.

On June 25, Delta Flight 6499 left the gate at JFK bound for Dallas. It finally took off seven hours later. (The ordeal, by the way, lives on in abbreviated infamy through the miracle of YouTube. The clip is only seven minutes long, although the soundtrack and subtitles are a nice touch.)

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Unfortunately, such incidents will probably occur with increasing frequency. Chalk it up to summer thunderstorms, airline mismanagement or an antiquated air-traffic-control system (OK, all of the above), but more and longer runway delays are all but certain as the summer wears on. And although I hesitate to use terms like “hostage situation” and “false imprisonment,” I can understand why many people do.

Summer storms and stranded passengers
All of which underscores the timeliness of the WHO report on deep vein thrombosis, aka, economy class syndrome. The root cause is immobility, and it can strike whether you’re four hours into an international flight or still stuck somewhere between the terminal and the runway. Think about it: You could very easily suffer a condition often attributed to extended air travel without ever leaving the ground.

So, what’s a cramped economy-class flier to do?

First, recognize the risks. In addition to immobility, the WHO study found that obesity, height (taller than 6’3” or shorter than 5’3”), use of oral contraceptives and inherited blood disorders contributed to increased clotting tendency. It also noted that the risk of clotting remained elevated for up to four weeks, meaning that travelers who take multiple flights over a short period of time face a higher risk.

Second, take preventive action to maintain blood flow. If you can walk around, do so; if you can’t, do some in-seat exercises — ankle circles, heel and toe lifts — for four or five minutes every hour. Wear loose-fitting clothes; go easy on the caffeine and alcohol (they’re diuretics); and drink plenty of water to remain hydrated.

You may also want to consider paying for extra legroom, especially if you’re prone to clotting problems. Last month, AirTran became the latest airline to let passengers pay extra ($15) to reserve an exit-row or other “premium” seat. (Southwest is currently considering changes to its seating program, although details won’t be announced until later this year.)

Otherwise, you’re welcome to join the rest of us in the back of the bus. We’ll be the ones rolling our ankles, twiddling our thumbs and dreading our next inevitable delay.

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