FAA targets airline delays

The Federal Aviation Administration hopes to have a plan to cut airline delays 20 percent on the East Coast in place by the end of summer, Administrator Marion C. Blakey said yesterday.

The plan would change some flight patterns by redesigning airspace over New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey and would help reduce delay times at Washington-area airports.

"When you know that within the next 18 months you can drop delays by about 20 percent, that's big," Mrs. Blakey told editors and reporters at The Washington Times. "And this is just with changing the airspace - it is not high technology or very expensive new runways."

Flights on U.S. airlines arrived late more often during the first five months of this year than in any other year since the government began tracking delays in 1995, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

The FAA plan has taken a decade to develop because of the complexities in drafting flight plans that affect the fewest number of residential areas, Mrs. Blakey said. The agency has held 120 meetings with community groups in recent years regarding the plan.

"Anytime you move an aircraft over someone's house, that person squawks," she said. "To be fair, you have to have a lot of literal engineering work. Airspace is real estate like anything else."

The agency also had to follow strict environmental regulations regarding noise pollution and aircraft emissions before drafting the final plan, as well as convincing Capitol Hill lawmakers of the plan's merits.

"What I have tried to assure community groups and members of Congress over and over again is, we're not insensitive," she said. "If our model turns up this or that [problem], you continue to try to make adaptations to try to have the least possible negative impact on communities."

The plan requires approval from Congress. If it is rejected, airport delays - already on pace to reach record-high levels - will significantly worsen, Mrs. Blakey said.

"It is not as though there's a good alternative to this," she said. "It would be a shame to lose 10 years of work because people are fearful."

FAA would be forced to place tight caps on the number of flights that airlines and airports could operate if the plan fails to win congressional approval.

"And caps mean [an airport] may not have new start-up service. It means you don't have as much service to smaller communities," she said. "There are a lot of problems with caps."

Despite gridlock and airline delays that have affected airports across the nation this summer, Mrs. Blakey gave the region's three major airports - Washington Dulles International, Ronald Reagan Washington National and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall - high marks.

"There is plenty of [extra] runway space and even airspace to serve Reagan. ... And [BWI] is doing well," she said

Dulles, which had reported a drop in passengers last year attributed mostly to the bankruptcy and grounding of Independence Air in early 2006, is recovering well, she said.

"The business community and the larger community has really stepped up [to support Dulles], and Dulles has infrastructure now with a new runway" being built, she said. "You're not seeing delays there [at Dulles]. Most of [the problems] you're seeing at Dulles is in the terminal itself - security issues, that kind of problem, but it's not a 'can you get the planes off the tarmac' problem."

Overhauling the nation's air-traffic-control system is another major factor in ensuring the success of commercial aviation, Mrs. Blakey said.

The Next Generation Air Transportation System, called NextGen, would replace the radar-based air-traffic control system with the Global Positioning System, which uses satellites to track aircraft.

The new technology, which also requires approval from Congress, is vital to help alleviate congestion and reduce flight delays and would be safer and help streamline flight operations so as to cut down on jet noise.

The FAA expects the number of all flights to at least double, and possibly triple, in the next two decades.

"It's still going to require active involvement [by air-traffic controllers] but ... it's going to be a lot less mechanical and more about traffic flows," she said "It's not one controller on the radio talking to one pilot using radar, which is a World War II technology."

The system, which isn't expected to be fully implemented nationwide until about 2025, is expected to cost up to $22 billion for infrastructure and up to $20 billion for equipping aircraft with the technology.

To pay for the multibillion dollar endeavor, the FAA's plan calls for collecting "user fees" from aircraft operators, which would impose a fee each time an aircraft flies. The amount of the tax would depend on several variables, including the size and type of the aircraft, and the levy would be imposed on commercial airlines as well as corporate jets and small private planes.

Commercial airlines account for about 70 percent of the air-traffic system's use but pay 95 percent of costs, the FAA says. The agency says its new plan would bring aviation costs in line with use.

Under the bill, airlines would pay about $6.75 billion a year, or about $2 billion less than they do now.

User fees long have been sought by the airline industry, which has accused general aviation operators of not paying their fair share.

The proposal isn't expected to survive the legislative process without some changes because of its complexity and the Democrat-controlled Congress' reluctance to rubber-stamp a proposal from the Bush administration.


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