WHEN it comes to getting around any distance, Americans clearly prefer traveling by air. Airline passenger traffic is expected to grow 75 percent over the next decade. This projection of itself should be reexamined: It may call for promotion of other modes of travel rather than unlimited air travel expansion. But if the demand for air travel must substantially grow, then the physical capacity of the country's airports must be expanded, or many passengers may never get off the ground. At issue is everything from gate space to runways. A few airports, like Boston's Logan, are hemmed in on all sides by water and densely populated neighborhoods, with no apparent room to grow.
As other airports have tried to expand or relocate, their suburban neighbors have often banded together effectively to fight the change. One of their most potent weapons in court: charges of noise pollution. Such opposition often explains why no new airport has been built in the last decade. Even the newest -- the Dallas-Fort Worth airport -- has already added a new runway and is considering a fifth terminal.
Most airports are forced to try to keep pace with such growth by technology, such as improved radar, and by squeezing more runways and terminal gates out of existing land space.
Since taking office, Federal Aviation Administration chief Donald Engen has urged airport managers to draft expansion plans or face more federal limits on the number of takeoffs and landings such as those long in place at four of the busiest airports. A new FAA airport capacity office has been set up to help coordinate the effort and point out where federal funds can help.
The Airport Operators Council International insists that most major airports now have expansion plans. The challenge is in putting them in effect. Several airports, including those in Tucson, Ariz., Las Vegas, Nev., and Memphis, have successfully expanded. From Chicago to Pittsburgh, plans have been in and out of court and the delays have been costly.
Further development of small reliever airports for private and business aviation use should help free busier airports to concentrate more on commercial traffic.
While necessarily protecting their own rights, airport neighbors fighting expansion and noise levels should also weigh the broad community and business impact of their opposition if, as a result, air traffic goes elsewhere.
It was only when the manager of Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport took a cue from expansion opponents by organizing the pro-expansion business community as a counterweight that he succeeded in getting approval for a fourth runway.
The alternatives to such planning and action are clear. Flight limits will mean even longer waits at major airports. And alternative development of regional airports will require passengers to spend a great deal more time on the road going to and from their flights.
Such options are sure to test passenger patience in the years to come.