Dogged by record flight delays, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday said airlines need to shrink their schedules or potentially face government action.
"The airlines need to take a step back on scheduling practices that are at times out of line with reality," FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said in prepared remarks at an industry luncheon.
Blakey said the agency is particularly concerned about overcrowded skies and airports along the East Coast, saying "if the airlines don't address this voluntarily, don't be surprised when the government steps in."
Blakey finishes a five-year stint at the agency Thursday.
The airline industry's on-time performance in the first seven months of 2007 was its worst since comparable data began being collected in 1995, according to government data.
U.S. carriers reported an on-time arrival rate of 69.8 percent in July, the most recent statistics available, down from 73.7 percent a year ago, according to the Department of Transportation.
Mike Boyd, an aviation consultant based in Evergreen, Colo., criticized Blakey and the FAA for not doing more to upgrade air traffic control systems, which he said are ten years out of date.
"The skies are not crowded, the skies are mismanaged by the FAA," he said.
In her remarks, Blakey touted a recent $1.8 billion contract award to ITT Corp. to build the first portion of a new satellite-based air traffic control system. But that upgrade is already almost seven years behind schedule, Boyd charged.
Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the agency, said the government has acted in the past to reduce congestion. She noted that the FAA stepped in several years ago in Chicago and held "scheduling meetings" that led to reduced flights during peak hours at Chicago's O'Hare airport.
Bob Mann, an airline analyst and consultant, said a similar exercise should be done nationwide, though it would be much more complex.
David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an industry group, said that any effort to reduce crowding in the Northeast should involve international airlines and corporate jets, as well as U.S. airlines.
Castelveter also said the airlines' schedules are intended to meet the demands of customers.
"The carriers put airplanes where people want to go, and when they want to fly," he said. "They're not flying empty airplanes."
Mann, however, argued that consumers might prefer fewer flights on larger planes that would have fewer delays.
The ATA's members include Continental Airlines Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc., AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, Southwest Airlines Co. and UAL Corp.'s United Airlines.