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11 ways to fix air travel

U.S. air travel is a miserable experience--bad service, long lines, grumpy flight crews and groping security agents. It's an endurance test, an endless stream of delays and discomforts with little resolution in sight.
/ Source: Forbes

U.S. air travel is a miserable experience--bad service, long lines, grumpy flight crews and groping security agents.

It's an endurance test, an endless stream of delays and discomforts with little resolution in sight. Upset travelers, some of whom have been stranded for days, are pushing Congress to adopt a passenger bill of rights.

Airlines deserve a big part of the blame--they have done a horrendous job of handling customer complaints. Cutbacks in service and a long list of charges for things that were once free, like food and beverages, has only angered travelers more.

But a bigger, less visible culprit is also to blame for travelers woes: the nation’s overburdened air transportation system, a network that suffers from too much traffic, too few runways, too little spending on new technology and too much bungling by Washington bureaucrats.

There’s much to be done to improve the situation. editors put together a prescription for what they think might ease the nation’s air transportation gridlock, increase competition and soothe passengers’ nerves in the meantime.

Among our suggestions:

* Fast track installation of a $15 billion to $20 billion advanced global satellite positioning system to track aircraft.

* Get Congress to authorize billions in new spending on runways and airports to reduce congestion over the next decade.

* Open the U.S. skies to competition, allow foreign carriers to enter the U.S., and acquire poor performing carriers.

* Offer tax incentives to spur development of light jets. Encourage use of smaller, alternative airports in noncongested traffic corridors.

* Mandate a passenger bill of rights forcing the airlines to offer money to passengers for delays.

In the 30 years since airline deregulation, passenger revenue miles have tripled. Some 750 million passengers now fly annually, a figure the FAA says should increase 3.4% annually, topping 1 billion by 2017.

Today, commercial aviation drives $1.2 trillion in U.S. economic activity. Air travel has become an integral link between the U.S. and the global economy--not just for passengers, but also for cargo.

Yet, U.S. air transportation system is falling apart. It is antiquated and crumbling. In the past 40 years, only two new major commercial airports have opened: Dallas Fort Worth and Denver International.

There are too few runways, taxiways and gates, especially at the biggest airports like New York’s JFK and Chicago’s O’Hare. Federal regulators say at least four new airports will be needed in the next 20 to 30 years.

Most major airports will be unable to land Airbus’ new A380 super-jumbo jets or handle deplaning 555 passengers without new runways and facilities. Thousands of ultra-light jets being manufactured by companies like Eclipse Aviation will soon take to the skies, further congesting airports.

Billions will need to be spent on airports and runways in coming years to handle new traffic. Within 10 years, the FAA predicts traffic at the nation’s busiest airports will be 30% to 40% higher than today.

Keeping track of all those planes has become problematic. That’s because the nation’s air traffic control system relies on an antiquated 1950s architecture, known as radar that was cutting edge in the days of Ozzie and Harriet.

Radar, or radio waves, sweep the sky every 12 seconds transmitting images of approaching aircraft that can then be viewed by controllers onscreen in a series of centers spanning the nation.

En route to their destination, planes must fly over the control centers instead of a straight line, wasting fuel and time. Radar only gives an approximate location of where a plane is headed, complicating aircraft controllers’ jobs.

When storms hit or congestion surfaces, controllers respond by increasing spacing between aircraft, leading to delays and flight cancellations.

Installing a more advanced global satellite positioning system that would solve the problem is estimated to cost $15 billion to $22 billion. Reconfiguring aircraft will cost the airlines another $15 billion. Even if the spending is authorized by Congress, it will take a decade or more to install.

The alternatives are pretty bleak, though.

FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey told congress in early May that even though 2006 set a record for delays, air travelers ain't seen nothing yet. "If we fail to take action, that record will be eclipsed again and again and again."