Will Powers  /  AP
A newly created aviation rule-making committee is charged with coming up with innovative ideas to resolve the nation’s flight-delay dilemma. Their recommendations are due on President Bush’s desk in early December, and are aimed at putting changes in place before next summer’s travel crunch.
updated 10/24/2007 2:10:44 PM ET 2007-10-24T18:10:44

Following a summer of record-high flight delays, federal regulators and the aviation industry are scrambling to fix the stressed and stretched U.S. air system.

But while there is broad agreement about what’s causing the delays, there is no such consensus about what to do to prevent them from inflicting more pain on travelers next summer.

Airline and airport executives, industry analysts, consumer advocates and local, state and federal authorities are meeting Oct. 24-25 at the behest of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters to consider ways to ease the airport and airspace congestion that leads to flight delays and cancellations. They will begin by studying the nation’s busiest airspace: the Northeast corridor around New York City.

New York is also the nation’s most troubled airspace. According to Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, who sits on the task force studying the Northeast corridor, "Thirty-three percent of the operations in the country occur here, and 75 percent of delays around the country have as their cause delays in New York."

The newly created aviation rule-making committee is charged with coming up with innovative ideas to resolve the nation’s flight-delay dilemma. Their recommendations are due on President Bush’s desk in early December, and are aimed at putting changes in place before next summer’s travel crunch.

“Our first choice is to find market-based incentives to fix delays so we can preserve passenger choice," Peters said, "but we will consider imposing scheduling restrictions as one option to avoid a repeat of this summer’s delays."

Industry analysts say a ‘perfect storm’ has battered the air travel system. Elements of the storm include:

  • A shift from big mainline aircraft to smaller regional jets by major airlines eager to cut costs while also increasing the number of flights
  • A proliferation of private jets that compete with commercial aircraft for space in the air and on the ground
  • An aging, radar-based air-traffic control system and the inability of the Federal Aviation Administration to replace it promptly with a modern, satellite-based system
  • Work slowdowns by air traffic controllers and airline workers infuriated by labor givebacks and huge executive payouts
  • Rough weather in both high summer and deepest winter and the continuing surge in post 9/11 travel demand.

Everyone agrees there is a problem, but proposed solutions mooted so far appear headed in many different directions and are sometimes contradictory.

New York Senator Charles Schumer earlier this month proposed appointing an aviation ‘czar’ to oversee operations in the Northeast corridor, an idea some prominent industry figures are publicly backing.

“We support the appointment of a 'czar’ to lead a multi-faceted congestion initiative in the Northeast corridor," said James May, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association. May also said, "No one believes that just posting a 'No Vacancy' sign at JFK is the right way forward."

"Someone in this new leadership role must be empowered to make substantive adjustments to the management of our nation’s airports and airspace," said May, whose trade group represents the nation’s major airlines.

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Who would play the role of czar or how it would be played have not been determined, according to David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, who sits on the aviation rules-making committee.

Stempler says he favors taking consumer-friendly steps that won’t raise fares or limit choice. Re-routing aircraft in the New York area to uncongested smaller airports could help, he suggested, as could charging higher airport landing fees at times of day when congestion is worst.

Some industry insiders, however, say that reducing the number of flights and raising fares is not only acceptable but necessary.

Vaughn Cordle, chief analyst for AirlineForecasts and a Boeing 777 captain for a major airline, says the DOT may have to impose a cap on the number of flights at JFK and other major New York area airports LaGuardia International and Newark Liberty International. Cordle reasons that fewer flights could allow airlines still to meet resurgent consumer demand and also raise fares — which they need to do anyway, with the price of crude oil approaching $90 a barrel.

If airlines could raise airfares by 7 percent, Cordle calculates, it would reduce passenger demand by 8.5 percent. This would have the doubly salutary effect of generating badly needed revenue for the airlines and helping to ease congestion at overburdened airports.

Whether any of these ideas — crowning an aviation czar, capping the number of flights, using congestion pricing, re-routing aircraft — will take hold remains to be seen, analysts say. Meanwhile, the continuing sky-high price of fuel remains a wild card for airlines and air passengers alike.

About the only possibly positive thing about the high price of fuel is that consumer demand could soar even higher if oil was cheap, Mitchell said. Then, airspace and airports would be even more crowded.

© 2013 Imaginova Corp.


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