In a year of record delays, President Bush stepped forward Thursday to try to speed American air travelers to their Thanksgiving gatherings and back home on time.
Declaring that "business as usual is not good enough for American travelers," Bush announced at the White House a series of detailed technical steps to reduce air traffic congestion and long delays that have left passengers stranded and turned holiday travel into "a season of dread for too many Americans."
In the most innovative move, the Pentagon will allow commercial airliners to use two air corridors off the eastern seaboard that are normally restricted to military flights. Supplementing the dozen air routes regularly used from Florida to New England, they will create "a Thanksgiving express lane" for commercial airliners from 4 p.m. EST Wednesday through Sunday — the busiest days of Thanksgiving travel.
For the second time since September when he ordered the Transportation Department and the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with solutions, Bush personally intervened in the intractable problem of air congestion that previous presidents avoided and many aviation experts believe has only long-term solutions.
Crowded airports, stranded passengers and delayed flights "carry some real costs for the country," Bush said, "not just in the inconvenience they cause, but in the business they obstruct and family gatherings they cause people to miss."
Bush's moves were applauded by trade groups representing the airlines and airports but derided as ineffective by air traffic controllers who said their ranks have been thinned too much to handle the holiday crush efficiently. The pilots union called some long-term steps too drastic.
Democrats in Congress characterized Bush's actions as "better late than never," in the words of Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., House aviation subcommittee chairman, and not nearly enough in the view of Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Even Transportation Secretary Mary Peters acknowledged, "If we get an ice storm on the eastern seaboard, it probably won't be pretty."
Americans traveling through one of the main chokepoints, New Jersey's Newark Liberty International Airport, remained skeptical Thursday afternoon.
"It's probably a good idea, but are the airlines going to be able to handle it?" asked Dawn East, 52, as she waited for her flight to Miami, which had been delayed for two hours. "It's not a problem of the lanes up there. It's an industry problem. There's no efficiency."
Mike Young, 60, who plans to travel to Arkansas over Thanksgiving to see his daughter, doesn't expect Bush's plan to help. "In theory, it sounds nice, but given his record, I don't trust it to work," said Young, a consultant, headed home to Seattle.
Garth Ehrlich, 51, a molecular biologist waiting for a delayed flight to Pittsburgh, also expects to travel over Thanksgiving to Los Angeles, and hopes the "Thanksgiving express lane" will ease delays and that "it doesn't in any way jeopardize national security."
On Capitol Hill, airline executives told the House aviation subcommittee they will reduce overbooking during the holidays and add ticketing staff. Airport association executives said they are finding places to sleep, including cots, and food and water for people who are stranded.
The chief benefit of using the military air routes would be to "get people out of the New York area quicker, especially if we have (bad) weather up and down the East Coast," said Nancy Kalinowski, systems operations vice president at the FAA. This could have a wider impact because 75 percent of the nation's air traffic delays are traced to congestion problems in the New York area.
Through September, more than 24 percent of U.S. flights arrived late, the worst on-time performance since comparable data began being collected in 1995. In these Transportation Department figures, on-time means less than 15 minutes late.
Many of the new moves also will be in effect for Christmas but even some of the short-term steps Bush announced — like doubling the penalties airlines have to pay passengers bumped from overbooked flights — won't take place until next summer at the earliest.
Bush acknowledged these short-term steps "do not cure the underlying problem: In certain parts of our country, the demand for air service exceeds the available supply. As a result, airlines are scheduling more arrivals and departures than airports can possibly handle."
He called on Congress to pass his FAA reauthorization bill, which would finance a multibillion-dollar modernizing of air traffic control by replacing radars with global positioning satellites. The House has passed a reauthorization, but Bush objects to some provisions. The Senate has yet to act.
Among the short-term steps:
* The FAA is imposing a holiday moratorium on nonessential maintenance projects, so all its personnel and equipment will be focused on keeping flights on time.
* New runway use patterns have been instituted at New York's Kennedy International that allow four to six more planes to arrive each hour, and Newark is about to add new takeoff routes.
* An FAA Web site, will provide up-to-date information about airport delays. Passengers can sign up to have delay notices sent to their mobile phones.
The Transportation Department proposed new rules to double the bump fee that airlines must pay to travelers with tickets but no seat from $200 for those delayed less than two hours and $400 for those who wait more than two hours to $400 and $800. It also proposed that airlines devise legally enforceable plans to provide food, water, lavatories and medical care to passengers stranded in planes on airport taxiways.
Long-term, Bush expressed support for so-called "congestion pricing" proposals that would charge airlines higher fees to take off and land at peak hours in overcrowded airports to encourage them to spread flights throughout the day
Transportation Secretary Peters acknowledged airlines would pass along to passengers some of the costs of the higher fees and penalties. But she said, "Travelers already pay now for the lack of reliability, the lack of knowing they'll get there on time." She said her former private sector employer paid the extra cost of having employees travel a day early to be sure to be on time.
Associated Press writers Janet Frankston Loring in Newark, N.J., and Jim Abrams in Washington contributed to this story.