Moving Airlines to Market

Just because airplane congestion on the tarmac hasn't had as much attention this summer as the people congestion in security lines, that doesn't mean the problem is solved. New schemes to help prevent takeoff and landing delays need to be in place, and soon.

As air travel works its way back to its pre-9/11 load, the FAA estimates more delays at many airports. At Boston's Logan Airport, for instance, total annual delays could reach 372,000 hours by 2015 unless something is done.

Two years ago, Congress tried to attack the problem by requiring that restrictions on the number of "slots" (the right to land or take off at a certain time) be lifted on all but Washington's Reagan National Airport. Previously, slot-restricted airports included some of the nation's busiest: Chicago's O'Hare, New York's La Guardia and Kennedy, as well as National. But that wasn't enough. Now the Department of Transportation will soon decide on a market-based solution. A promising idea, endorsed by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, and others, is peak-hour pricing.

Such a system would have airlines pay more money to take off or land at the most congested airports during peak travel times. The assumption is that most prime-time travelers are time-pressed businesspeople who can pay an extra charge (airlines often do this, anyway). It also assumes that many airlines will offer lower-price flights for casual travelers during low-peak hours, thus spacing more flights through the day.

Expecting government to keep track of the ups and downs in travel flow may be too much to ask. But then airport expansion has not kept pace with the growth in air travel. Something has to give.

At Logan, a proposed new runway and an approach such as peak-hour pricing could cut delays by 41 percent. Greater use of nearby airports, where smaller, low-price airlines are attracting flyers, will also help.

A quarter-century of experience with airline deregulation hasn't been easy for airlines or passengers. Over time, the government's learned how to help keep prices low and flights mostly on time. And innovative airlines, like Southwest, show the industry knows how to adjust to the evolving strictures of government controls.

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