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THE TERRIBLE RECORD OF FLIGHT 1266

The Boston to-Tampa night flight is chronically late, the worst in the country.

Good riddance to Northwest Flight 1266, the little plane that couldn't.

The Boston-to-Tampa flight was the most consistently late in the country during July. It was overdue 27 days in a row, averaging more than an hour behind schedule.

Airline officials knew the flight was a mess but couldn't fix it. By the time they pulled the plug last month, it racked up an astounding 90.5 percent late-arrival record over the course of 11 weeks.

How does a flight run so badly for so long?

For Northwest 1266, the answer involves a bad decision, some bad luck, an airline mega-merger and a plane that couldn't fly over the ocean.

"When you have a chronically late flight, it's not a random occurrence,'' said Robert Mann, an airline industry consultant in Port Washington, N.Y. "There's a reason for it.''

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When Delta Air Lines acquired Northwest last year to create the world's largest airline, executives touted the benefits of flying a diverse fleet of airplanes. Delta's planes were all made by Boeing or McDonnell Douglas, which merged with Boeing. Half of Northwest's fleet came from European aerospace giant Airbus.

The wider variety of aircraft gives Delta flexibility to better match the size of the plane with how many passengers fly between two cities. "In a network of this size, you really do need to be able to optimize the airplane to the route,'' said Richard Anderson, Delta's chief executive.

That was the idea behind Delta handing over to Northwest the route that ended with the Boston-Tampa flight. Since the recession dampened demand for air travel, it would be easier to fill the Northwest Airbus A319, which has 124 seats - 18 fewer than Delta's MD-88.

But the plane turned out to be a bad choice. Before the evening Boston-Tampa flight, the A319 was scheduled for long midday trips from Boston to West Palm Beach and back.

Delta's MD-88s always took a route over the Atlantic Ocean 170 miles offshore. By sidestepping the East Coast, the jets avoided Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City - some of the nation's most congested airspace.

Planes flying extended routes over water must carry life jackets on board, under Federal Aviation Administration regulations. But Northwest, with operations centered in the Midwest, didn't equip its domestic A319 fleet with emergency equipment for carrying passengers over oceans.

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Delta operational planners knew the Airbus couldn't fly over water, says Delta spokesman Anthony Black. But because the plane flew at a cruising speed slightly faster than an MD-88, they believed it could make each trip in the same time: three hours and 18 minutes from gate to gate.

It soon became obvious things weren't working out. The West Palm Beach-to-Boston flight flew daily for three weeks before its first on-time arrival June 25, according to FlightStats.com. Boston-to-West Palm Beach performed better, with one in five arrivals on time, but it was still a dismal record compared to national averages.

Delta tried adding a few extra minutes to each flight's schedule. But that didn't make much difference.

Worse than usual summer storms in the Northeast, particularly in Boston, kept planes waiting on the ground or flying holding patterns, Black said. The route's first flight of the day - from Detroit to Boston - took delays when Detroit's airport unexpectedly closed a runway for repairs, Black said.

Delta finally threw in the towel and has decided to bring back the MD-88. But the process, which includes letting crew members bid by seniority to work a route, can take weeks. "As soon as we became aware of operational challenges, we quickly adjusted our schedule," Black said.

Delta planners should have anticipated trouble flying the East Coast on a tight schedule, says Mann, the airline consultant. Especially in the afternoon when air traffic builds and storms start brewing.

"You're going to have problems,'' he said. "You're going to get involved in every air traffic control delay from Atlanta to Boston. There are just too many airplanes and too little airspace.''

It's no surprise the Tampa-Boston flight rose to the top of the government's late flight list. Delays snowball through the day, making the last flight of a route "the sum of all errors,'' says Mann.

Delta expects to bring back the A319s around October. But only after the planes are stocked with life jackets and life rafts.

Information from the Washington Post was used in this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

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