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Will air travel be better this summer?

Airlines move to reduce problems of 2007's dismal season, with a focus on New York area traffic.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 15, 2008

Bottleneck: Travelers at La Guardia International check in. Delays here and at two other New York area airports account for half the national total.

RICk Maiman/AP

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New York

Even with an estimated 2 million fewer people taking to the skies this summer because of the economic downturn and higher fares, airline officials are still expecting it to be a "challenging season."

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Planes will still be packed, schedules interrupted by the usual thunderstorms, and airlines operating with bare-bones staffs.

So, in an effort to avoid a repeat of last summer's aviation debacle – which saw record delays, tons of lost baggage, and increased complaints – the carriers are rallying forces now in hopes of smoother flying between Memorial and Labor Days.

Top on their list is pressuring the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to do even more to ease the air-traffic bottleneck in New York, which is responsible for half of all delays.

"This year delays will cost the airlines in the range of $10 billion," says James May, president and CEO of the Air Traffic Association, which represents major US airlines. "To give you an example, a 747 sitting on the tarmac at JFK [John F. Kennedy International] costs about $60 a minute."

The FAA and the airlines have been working to improve the efficiency of the New York airspace to reduce delays for almost 10 years. But thanks to last summer's chaos, the effort got a jump start. This past year a task force recommended 77 initiatives to make it possible for more planes to take off and land from the region's major airports at one time. Of those, only 12 have been implemented so far and another two dozen are in the works. The FAA has projected it will take five years to implement every recommendation.

That's not good enough for analysts who say the aviation system is already in crisis and damaging the economy as a whole.

"The FAA has to get a mentality where five-year projects become two-year projects and two-year projects become one-year projects," says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor, Pa. "There's this lolly-dolly attitude – things go on forever at the FAA."

Airlines, too, are pointing the finger at the FAA for not moving fast enough. But many aviation analysts say the airlines themselves are primarily responsible for many delays. The reason: the way they schedule their flights. During the past decade, the major carriers significantly increased their fleets of smaller, 50-seat regional jets, arguing that their customers wanted more frequent flights to the same destination. That added more congestion to America's archaic and overburdened air-traffic-control system and led the number of delays to spike.

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