Travelers already suffering from sticker shock at the ticket prices airlines have posted for summer travel may also have to brace for a repeat of the flight delays and cancellations that plagued last year's peak tourism season.
Federal aviation officials told Congress on Wednesday that efforts to ease the air traffic congestion that has seemingly become an annual rite of summer are likely to still be a work in progress this year.
Some of the airports the Department of Transportation views as likely problem spots have well-earned reputations for delays -- including New York's JFK and Chicago's O'Hare. But a surprise addition to the list this year is Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel, in testimony before the House aviation subcommittee in Washington, said his department has identified "several airports to watch closely this summer because of severe peaking during part of the day."
"For example, Northwest Airlines has scheduled 56 departures in one 15-minute window at Minneapolis-St. Paul --nearly three times the airport's departure capacity for that window," Scovel said.
In addition to MSP and JFK, he named the other two New York airports as well.
The news came as a surprise to airport officials.
"It's the first we've heard of it," said Patrick Hogan, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission. "We're not expecting any congestion problems because we've got more runway capacity and fewer flights overall" as airlines curtail flights due to high fuel prices.
Northwest did not respond to a request for comment.
"If it's an anomaly in flight scheduling, we wouldn't know about it -- that's an airline thing," Hogan said.
Still, some airline experts were incredulous at the 56 departures in 15 minutes cited by Scovel.
"I think it's very hard to believe that Northwest Airlines would schedule flights like that," said Terry Trippler, founder of the travel site www.tripplertravel.com. "But this would not be the first time someone from the government got it wrong."
George Wozniak, president of Hobbit Travel in Minneapolis, said the government warning might have made more sense last year.
"The warning is funny, because everybody was presuming this summer would be clear sailing at the airport," Wozniak said. "Last summer they shut down one runway to work on it, and that caused problems for months. But this summer, with the runway open, it's just the opposite."
Travelers using MSP last summer suffered more than their share of flight delays and cancellations, though the problems were more the result of staffing conflicts between Northwest and its pilots than air traffic congestion.
Wozniak argued that it's unfair for the DOT to single out Minneapolis-St. Paul, which overall has a good reputation for on-time departures and arrivals.
The data suggest he's right. In July 2007, about three-fourths of all flights arrived and departed on time at Minneapolis St. Paul airport, according to data compiled by the federal Department of Transportation. At New York's JFK, about 60 percent of flights arrived and departed on time.
Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553