Just six years ago, Hartsfield International Airport opened its new terminal and runways that have allowed it to vie with Chicago's O'Hare International, the largest airport in the United States. But Hartsfield is already beginning to feel the pinch of overcrowded corridors and runways. Years ahead of schedule, it is planning $130 million in new runways.
Airline deregulation has caused an explosion in air travel that has doubled the number of passengers in the past decade, to 472 million. Airports and the nation's air traffic control system have been overwhelmed by the growth, and they face projections of 750 million passengers in another 10 years.
Aviation industry executives and government regulators warn that unless airports in many cities are expanded, new airports are built, and the air traffic control system is updated, advantages that were gained by deregulation will be lost.
``We've been able to muddle through with sufficient bandaid fixes that have carried us along with a reasonable level of discomfort,'' says Bill Hoover of the Air Transport Association, the airline trade association. ``That approach really must come to an end.''
The Airport Operators Council says 18 major US airports each experienced more than 20,000 hours of delays in 1986. It predicts that as many as 36 airports will face similar delays by the 1990s, and 60 will by the early 2000s.
Donald Reilly, the council's director, says that at least five new airports are needed in the US by the end of the century, citing Denver, Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, St. Louis, Chicago, and Phoenix as potential locations.
But building new airports is hard. No major airport has been built from scratch since 1974 when the Dallas-Fort Worth airport opened. In short, the cost is staggering, and the environmental impact and the noise of a huge airport are unpopular.
``It will be difficult, if not impossible to build a new airport,'' said former Federal Aviation Administrator Lynn Helms. ``We have to convince the public that we are using the system to its capacity before they allow us to degrade the environment to build a new airport.''
Denver is the only city considering building an entirely new airport. The city's Stapleton International was built to handle 20 million passengers a year, but 34 million used it last year. Denver aviation officials say that with 50 million passengers expected by the early 1990s, Stapleton could become a bottleneck.
The new airport now under consideration is slated to cost $1.7 billion, and Denver is asking Congress to pay $500 million of the cost - more than any individual airport has ever requested.
Expanding existing airports can be difficult because people living around them protest the increase in noise, and compensating by buying or sound-proofing homes is expensive.
At the same time, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is under pressure to upgrade its air traffic control system, which is still one of the largest purchasers of outmoded vacuum tubes in the nation.
``We have vacuum tubes in the field, and we have vacuum tubes in the minds of some of our managers,'' Mr. Helms says. ``We can't be content just by buying new technology. We have to develop a new organization to become as modern as the equipment we are buying.''
But he compares upgrading the air traffic control system ``to changing the tires on a moving bus - while it is accelerating.''
While the number of aviation accidents has not increased with the rush of new air traffic, the FAA keeps the system safe by slowing it down when the air traffic control system is overwhelmed.
``If we do not correct this failing, the consumer will be the loser ... and ultimately the benefits of deregulation will be lost,'' says Eastern Airlines president Philip Bakes.
Critics say the air traffic control system changes at a bureaucratic rate while the airlines have been expanding at a rapid free-market pace since deregulation. As a result, the FAA has trouble keeping up when an airline decides to turn a sleepy small-city airport into a major transportation hub.
FAA chief T.Alan McArtor and many aviation executives advocate making the FAA an agency independent of the Transportation Department so that it can purchase equipment and make personnel changes without being hampered by bureaucratic red tape.
Aviation experts complain that flight taxes paid by airline passengers go into an ``Aviation Trust Fund,'' but they say that money is not being used to improve the nation's aviation system.
Instead, they say, as much as $1 billion a year - $6 billion total so far - has disappeared into helping to balance the federal deficit.
``We just want it used for what it was intended to be used for,'' says Robert Aaronson, aviation director for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.