Will US airlines make a turnaround in 2009?
Their cost-cutting in recent years could pay off. But longtime problems remain.
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But to ensure long-term stability, the airlines themselves say that modernizing the aviation infrastructure has to be high on Washington's agenda. Yet they recognize that any major infrastructure improvements should be made with an eye toward their environmental and economic impact as well.Skip to next paragraph
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"These are all interconnected," says David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents the major US carriers. "If we modernize the air-traffic control system, we'll be flying more directly, [saving money], and spewing less CO2."
President-elect Obama has nominated former congressman Ray LaHood to head the Department of Transportation. One of his first tasks will be shepherding through Congress the FAA reauthorization. The FAA has been operating on an extension of its old funding authority since September 2007.
One major stumbling block has been a battle over what type of taxes should be levied to pay for aviation infrastructure. The major carriers want smaller, private business jets to pay a larger share than they currently do. They, of course, are balking. Mr. LaHood has been praised as being as thoughtful and evenhanded in dealing with such complex issues.
But aviation experts are also hoping that he can look beyond the immediate issues to the larger context. "A major question is whether the secretary of Transportation will be able to reach beyond his immediate purview and help bring some sense to energy and environmental policy that also impact the airline industry," says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor, Pa., which represents corporate travel managers.
Not all experts are sanguine about those prospects. Although LaHood has been praised as someone who can take a fresh look at the industry's problems, he's also been criticized for his lack of deep understanding of transportation issues.
"We have a DOT secretary who knows nothing about the industry, so he'll take all of his cues from the bureaucrats at the FAA and the DOT," says Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, aviation consultants in Evergreen, Colo. "I don't see anything on the horizon that says anything is going to be shaken up. We can rest assured the air-travel experience will be just as inconvenient as ever."