BOSTON — A NATIONAL consensus is building on the urgency of the need to expand the nation's system of airways and airports. Without immediate improvements, delays may increase. Seats may prove harder to get. Congress's decision of 11 years ago to put America's airlines back into the free-market system was undeniably successful in attracting millions of new passengers. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that 500 million people, or almost double the 1978 figure, will board commercial planes in the US this year. By 2000 the total is expected to reach 800 million.
Yet no new major airports or expansions to accommodate this surge in passengers have sprung up. Some 17 airports are officially ``congested'' by the FAA's definition of delays totaling 20,000 hours or more. The FAA expects 58 airports to qualify by 2000.
Building new airports, a local decision, is difficult. Valid citizen concerns often quash such proposals early on. The new airport expected to open in Denver in 1993, the first major one since the 1974 Dallas-Fort Worth airport, will basically replace Stapleton Airport. It will open with more runways and double its total by 2020. Often adding just one more runway makes a major difference.
The brightest hope for expansion lies in streamlining FAA air traffic control technology. In 1982 the agency launched a 10-year modernization plan pegged at $10 billion to $12 billion.
A 1987 Senate Commerce Committee report found that some of the 88 projects in that National Airspace System plan were two to eight years behind schedule. A long-planned microwave landing system won't be in place until the late '90s.
The current FAA outlook is to finish in 10 more years at a cost of $15 billion. The plan's centerpiece is an advanced-automation system. One ingredient is a quick-sweep radar system that supplies a traffic update every second rather than every four seconds. It could lead to a narrowing of legal separation limits between planes coming and going on parallel runways. As much as one-fourth more traffic might be handled within the same time span. Gary Hufnagle, an air traffic controller at Boston's Logan Airport, says the advantage for a city such as his could be considerable: ``We can't expand physically so we should be expanding technologically.''
The airline industry and some members of Congress want to free up more money for the job and cut back on FAA bureaucracy.
In the forefront of the push is the Partnership for Improved Air Travel, an umbrella group of airlines, labor groups, frequent flyers, and the tourism industry. The partnership's priority is to corral the estimated $6.8 billion surplus in the Aviation Trust Fund. The fund, intended for capital improvements, amasses about $4 billion a year from taxes on passengers, fuel, and the like.
The airline industry contends that much of that total, all part of the federal budget, has been held back to make the government deficit appear smaller. ``It's being held hostage,'' insists Drew Steketee, the partnership's executive director. FAA spokesman Fred Farrar says his agency spent $25 billion from the fund since its 1971 founding. ``That sure doesn't sound like sitting on money that isn't being used,'' he says. ``We can't spend a dime of it unless Congress appropriates it.''
Adds Department of Transportation (DOT) spokesman Robert Marx: ``We're spending as much on aviation safety and modernization as we possibly can.'' The problem, he says, lies in trigger mechanisms and penalty provisions in the fund's legislation and in an internal congressional fight among money committees.
The result is that much of the money used by the FAA comes out of the general Treasury rather than the fund. Federal aviation spending in 1989, says Mr. Marx, will be $2.7 billion higher than the fund will likely collect.
Sen. Wendell Ford (D) of Kentucky is sponsor of a bill to create a new trust fund that is separate from the federal budget. The bill would also make the FAA independent. The partnership supports the trust fund change but is not united in favoring an independent FAA. Some members feel the added clout of representation at the Cabinet level is vital.
Still, virtually everyone who works in the airline industry agrees that FAA streamlining in management, personnel, procurement, and funding practices is needed. Equipment purchases, for instance, can require approval from 163 sources.
``The idea of independence is secondary to us,'' says Stephen Hayes, vice president of the Air Transport Association, which supports the Ford bill. ``What's really important is FAA reform. The agency should have the flexibility that private business has to procure quickly and efficiently and be able to transfer personnel more freely. At the moment we don't see a clear way to meet those objectives without an independent FAA.''