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Flight delays this Christmas?

Flight delays aren’t inevitable. There are proven ways – from revamping air traffic control to congestion pricing – to fix the problem.

By Robert W. Poole Jr. / December 23, 2009

Los Angeles

Thanks to the recession, air travel delays are down from the highs of recent years. But even if flights this holiday season aren’t nightmarish, experts project far worse delays in coming years, unless fundamental changes are made.

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Delays would not have become a problem if air travel had remained the province of the relatively well-off – as it was in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. In those days, a federal agency called the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) tightly controlled which airlines could fly which routes, and strictly limited competition to keep fares high and profits virtually guaranteed. But in 1978, thanks in part to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, Congress deregulated air travel, permitting real competition on routes and fares.

The result has been rightly called the “democratization of air travel,” as competition created openings for low-fare airlines such as Southwest, JetBlue, AirTran, and others. Air travel became affordable to just about everyone, and studies show that consumers benefit to the tune of tens of billions of dollars per year. 

When airline deregulation was enacted, there was lots of “slack” in the infrastructure; airports and the air traffic control system had lots of excess capacity. But the intellectual father of airline deregulation, economist and CAB chairman Alfred Kahn, warned at the time that airline competition would so stimulate the market that airports and air traffic control would get overwhelmed – unless Congress took action to enable them to become more nimble and better able to grow.

Unfortunately, Congress ignored Mr. Kahn’s warning. Air traffic grew and grew, but the air traffic control (ATC) system plodded along as a stodgy, bureaucratic government operation. It gradually introduced better displays and more modern computers, but most of these projects were delivered years late and way over budget. Airports were generally better managed, but remained passive when airlines scheduled far more flights at busy times of day than their runways could handle, leading to ever-longer delays in major cities.

As recently as the early 1990s, more than 81 percent of flights arrived on time, according to US Department of Transportation figures. By 2007, that number had plunged to 73 percent. Thus, prior to the current recession, about 1 out of every 4 flights arrived more than 15 minutes late.

During the 1990s, other countries began reforming the way their ATC systems were governed and funded. The common diagnosis was that ATC is essentially a high-tech service business that doesn’t really fit the model of a government department that depends on annual tax funding and micromanagement.