updated 5/18/2010 6:08:42 PM ET 2010-05-18T22:08:42

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration says his agency isn't willing to be the scapegoat when airline flights are delayed.

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Randy Babbitt said Tuesday that delays are mostly caused by airlines cramming too many flights into the peak morning and afternoon schedules. He cited frequent backups at Atlanta, Chicago's O'Hare and San Francisco as examples of the result, and he complained that pilots tell passengers that delays are the fault of the FAA.

"The FAA is not going to sit back and simply be the scapegoat," Babbitt said. He said delays won't be reduced "unless we commit to sensible, thoughtful scheduling practices."

The FAA administrator's comments to a group of airport executives in Dallas are the latest salvo between regulators and airlines over who's to blame when planes sit on the runway for hours.

The airlines blame bad weather and an aging air traffic control system, while government officials point fingers at the carriers.

A spokesman for an airline industry trade group, the Air Transport Association, said carriers are reducing flights at peak times — called depeaking. But he added that demand drives airline schedules. Slideshow: Cartoons: Danger in the air

"The FAA needs to focus on providing the air traffic management support that will enable carriers to meet periods of high demand," said ATA spokesman David Castelveter.

In late April, new rules by the Transportation Department took effect that could result in large fines for airlines that don't give passengers a chance to get off planes that are delayed on the ground at least three hours. Airline executives led by Continental CEO Jeff Smisek have threatened to cancel flights if there's even a chance of a three-hour delay.

The rules haven't been tested yet by a big storm that shuts down a major airport for hours. But Babbitt said he was confident that summer travel will flow smoothly thanks to fewer flights — airlines have been cutting capacity because of lower demand and high fuel prices.

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