Expect flight delays as summer travel season ends

The US continues to work to ease airspace congestion, the head of the FAA told reporters at a Monitor breakfast Wednesday. On Thursday, the FAA is expected to award a contract for a new air traffic control system.

Prepare for air travel delays this coming Labor Day weekend, says Marion Blakey, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

"What we do know is on the basis of advance ticket sales – travel is up. It is up over last year's Labor Day. It is up despite the delays we have been running all summer…. So I think it is fair to say that people should brace up and bring a good book. If weather cooperates with us, we may find that we have a relatively smooth, efficient system. But it really all depends on projected weather and that is looking problematic."

Ms. Blakey, who is leaving the FAA in September to run the Aerospace Industries Association, is one of Washington's more colorful characters. Most government officials who speak at Monitor breakfasts roll up at the hotel in black armored government SUV's. Blakey pulled up in a bright yellow Thunderbird.

An Alabama native with a pronounced southern accent, Blakey seemed relaxed at the early morning session with reporters and spoke candidly on several air-travel-related topics. In between policy questions, she regaled journalists with tales of her motorcycle trip around the perimeter of Australia and of her grandmother serving as Elvis Presley's piano and voice teacher in Tupelo, Miss.

The soon-to-depart FAA administrator has overseen the operation of the air travel system during a time of major strain. The airline industry's on-time performance is the worst in 13 years, according to figures from the Department of Transportation. So far this year, there have been 900,000 flights delayed and 93,000 cancellations. More than 30 percent of flights in June were late by an average of 62 minutes.

On Thursday, the FAA is expected to award a contract worth more than $1 billion to begin work on the next generation air traffic control system.

The system will rely on Global Positioning System satellites and is expected to help reduce air travel delays. But a large-scale rollout of the so-called Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) system is not expected to take place before 2013.

How soon will travelers get some relief from the new system? "Relief will be incremental all along, and we are doing everything we know to tackle some of the most congested airspace," Blakey said.

Despite congestion-related delays, air travel remains very safe, Blakey said. "We have been in the safest period in aviation history by far. All the stats are going in the right direction – not just the commercial fatal accident rate but the general aviation rates are down."

Still, Blakey spoke bluntly about safety concerns at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). "This year alone they have had four serious runway incursions on the north airfield…. Four is an enormous number relative to 30 for the country as a whole. So yes, they have a very serious safety problem, and they need to step up to it."

When Congress returns next month, it will need to deal with funding the FAA's operations. The aviation taxes that provide 80 percent of the FAA's budget expire at the end of September. If Congress resorts to short-term extensions of the taxes or does not extend them at all, "it will be extremely disruptive for one part of our activity that is very important to members of Congress … airport funding," Blakey said. Without specific legislative authorization, "you simply are stopping construction projects," she said.

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