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U.S. plan to ease air congestion runs into head winds

Some critics say a proposed cap on New York flights would raise costs. Others say better traffic management is the key.

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"This increases competition by creating a robust secondary market for trading [landing slots] and allows new entrants to gain access to restricted airports," DOT counsel general D.J. Gribbin told the committee.

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But critics, including the Port Authority of New York, which operates the region's airports, contend that is an untested idea that will add to the confusion and congestion as well as raise prices dramatically. The port authority also doesn't believe the DOT has the right to take away airlines' landing slots.

"We think it's not only illegal but also disastrous," says William DeCota, director of aviation at the port authority. "This proposal will do anything but create reliable and affordable air travel."

The port authority, the airlines, and Schumer all think the DOT should simply improve air traffic control by hiring more controllers and speeding up modernization of the nation's antiquated air traffic control system.

But some aviation analysts contend that both sides in the debate are missing a simple solution: better management of the planes when they're in the air.

"Today, airlines operate mostly on automatic: say a flight pulls off the gate in [Los Angeles] at 2:25, then they simply wait until it gets to [New York]" says Michael Boyd, president of The Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo.

And when they get there, they regularly find themselves circling as they wait to land. But what if that flight and others were managed to take advantage of real-time weather and airport congestion conditions to maximize the overall system's efficiency? In Germany, Lufthansa Airlines is already using a software program to do that. And so is Delta Airlines at its hub in Atlanta. That program is called "Attila." And it basically acts as a traffic cop in the sky.

For example, "If there are tail winds and no expected delays in New York, [Attila] would say, 'Throttle back, save 600 pounds of fuel and still arrive on time.' Or, if there were expected air traffic control problems it would say, 'Speed that [baby] up, because you need to get there sooner rather than later,' " says Mr. Boyd.

In the interest of disclosure, both Boyd and Mann have worked with Attila's inventor, the ATH Group, in Lanham, Md.

Delta Airlines, which started using Attila in August 2006, has saved more than 4 million gallons of fuel and more than 4,000 hours in flight time, according to the Attila website.

Several other major carriers are currently considering using the software at their hubs as well. But New York represents a more complex problem, since there are three major hubs in the same region and four major airlines. Attila operates to maximize the efficiency for each airline according to its own business needs. So if airlines were to adopt it in New York, analysts say there would have to be an "honest broker" of sorts that could prioritize flights fairly.

Meanwhile, the DOT is taking comments on its proposal to auction slots at the region's airports, and the airlines are vowing to take it to court if it moves ahead with the plan. Schumer has also pledged to block the plan.