'Flow control': air industry must revamp its schedules

When airline executives and Department of Transportation officials talk, everybody listens. That's because many more Americans are flying this year - not only more than 10 or 5 years ago, but more than even a year ago.

And a lot of those people have been experiencing frustrating delays in boarding or debarking.

Now that the Transportation Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, and airline representatives are addressing the problem, a lot of people are asking, ''What took you so long?''

We were ready to join the chorus until we began putting a few facts and figures together.

The full effects of airline deregulation began to be felt last spring, with the last restrictions being dropped in April. At the same time a surging economy resulted in a marked increase of the number of Americans taking trips. One FAA spokesman said the problem of overcrowded schedules ''burst on us this summer.''

With deregulation came increased competition among airlines, old and new, for business on the more lucrative routes and at the most-desired times. Some competitors fell by the wayside; but for every one that lost out, it seems at least one new aspirant appeared.

Because people, especially business executives, prefer to fly at certain times, you get situations such as that in Atlanta: between 8 and 8:30 a.m. 95 flights are scheduled to land; from 8:30 to 9 only 10 come in; then the figure jumps to 59 between 9 and 9:30.

Partly as a result of the firing of striking air controllers in October 1981, the FAA began a system called ''flow control.'' It's the reason for those long waits at the airport, with your plane taking off an hour or more late. The agency felt it was better to have people and planes waiting on the ground than to have them circling above cities while short-handed, inexperienced traffic controllers tried to sort them out.

Now, things are beginning to move. For more than a month FAA, DOT, and airline executives have been talking about the situation. On Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole said the FAA would move toward imposing schedules on airlines at six major airports - La Guardia, Kennedy, and Newark in the New York area; O'Hare, in Chicago; Atlanta; and Denver. But no action can be taken until a 14-day period for public comment expires.

Meanwhile, Eastern Airlines has asked the Civil Aeronautics Board (which, by the way, goes out of existence Dec. 31) to grant an antitrust exemption that would enable the airlines to get together and work out a scheduling agreement.

Some airline industry sources say such an agreement would be difficult to reach. But an FAA spokesman says that if there is no progress in the next two weeks, the agency will probably go ahead with its scheduling plan.

Where does this leave the passengers? With some hope of relief.

New airline schedules are due to go into effect Oct. 28. Industry sources point out that it takes five to six weeks after agreeing on the schedules to get them in final form and printed for the paying customers. That leaves little time for relieving the situation at those six busiest terminals.

We have a few suggestions for both government and airlines:

* Do a better job of informing the public. It's easier to bear delays if one understands the reasons for them. And, if a traveler knows that delays are likely at certain times and certain airports, he or she might resort to a different flight time or even a different mode of transport.

* Begin making more use of holding patterns at destinations. We are told that with the number of controllers now nearing maximum, it should be possible to have planes ''take the delay'' in the air instead of on the ground. Flights can often be ''slipped in'' when unpredictable gaps occur, one expert explains.

* Get on with plans to ''provide more concrete'' - runways, that is - and to expand the facilities for parking and unloading.

* Try to get most of the smaller, noncommercial planes out of main airports to secondary facilities. It's not easy, we know, but both convenience and safety make it necessary.

* Make an effort to anticipate both needs and problems better. Deregulation is going to put a far greater responsibility for this on the airlines themselves.

One final point of major public concern: safety. Government and airline spokesmen continue to insist that flying has been safer in the past year or so than ever before. They cite impressive statistics. The Air Line Pilots Association is not so sure, especially where the matter of so-called ''near-misses'' is concerned.

That's an unresolved argument, and the best way to move it toward satisfactory resolution is for the public to stay alert and keep the pressure on - especially in this era of deregulation.

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