Long on-board delays. Perfect fodder for yellow journalists and for government officials looking for easy causes to help with reelection. But they are not the right focus for those hoping to convince government officials to fix our ailing national Air Traffic Control (ATC) system.

The Air Transport Association (ATA) released a statement praising data gathered by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) regarding long on-board delays and calling for the modernization of the air traffic control system.

ATA and the airlines were strong supporters of the improved data collection that went into today’s BTS report “Taxi-Out and Other Tarmac Times.” It comes as no surprise that with more detailed data the number of reported delays is up slightly with the addition of roughly 26 delays per month over the four months reported. While this number is still remarkably low (an increase of one out of every 20,347 flights or 0.0049 percent), what it tells us is that we are on the right track in calling for the aggressive roll-out of a modernized air traffic management system that will help drive these delay numbers even lower.

I agree wholeheartedly with ATA on the need to modernize this country’s antiquated ATC system. And I see the airlines’ and ATA’s need to support improved data collection for the “Taxi-Out and Other Tarmac Times” this report details. To not support it would be political suicide.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Aviation Consumer Protection Division’s latest report, out of 532,339 flights operated by the major carriers in January 2009, there were 86 that were delayed on the tarmac greater than three hours. Eighty-six. That’s 0.016 percent of the total flight schedule.

The DOT provided details for the subset of flights in January that were more than four hours late. With one exception, they all occurred in the Ohio Valley during a snow and ice storm that, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, dumped more than seven feet of snow on the area. In December, it looks like Houston had a very bad day for flying on the 10th. Sure enough, it snowed there too.

So what we can deduce is that the airline which has a hub impacted by poor weather will show up on the naughty list. That’s not newsworthy.

Customers, legislators, the media and lobbyists like the ATA are paying attention to the wrong statistic. Embedded in the DOT’s report (see their Table 9) is the fact that 42,787 flights (8.07 percent) of the country’s January flight schedule was delayed because of a “National Aviation System Delay.”

The phrase “National Aviation System Delay” doesn’t sell papers, get votes or pull at constituents’ heartstrings as well as “Long On-Board Delay” does. But 42,787 certainly speaks more loudly than 86 when it comes to demonstrating the need to fix our nation’s crumbling air traffic control system.