Solving Those Airport Delays

If you thought there were a lot of delayed flights this summer, you were right.

A study released last week by the Federal Aviation Administration and the major airlines confirms delays are running almost 20 percent more than last year. The number of late flights climbed seriously starting in April. At fault: bad weather, a lot more flights, and new equipment that controllers are still learning to use.

The report also found that poor communication between air-traffic-control centers and a lack of standardized equipment are stalling the system. Things got so bad the heads of several major airlines went straight to Federal Aviation Administration chief Jane Garvey for action.

Last month Ms. Garvey announced a series of steps meant to speed things up. She gave the air-traffic command center in Herndon, Va., authority over regional centers on traffic patterns. The national center can take a bigger-picture approach to steering flights around bad weather.

Garvey also limited controllers' use of spacing restrictions between aircraft. Current regulations call for five miles between planes; some controllers have kept them as much as 90 miles apart. The FAA administrator also promised to give airlines more information on how long delays will last.

But more is needed.

There's been serious underinvestment in the nation's aviation infrastructure - computers, radars, runways - for several years now. The federal government collects ticket fees for the Aviation Trust Fund, but as with gas taxes for highways, much of the money has been spent on other programs.

Rep. Bud Shuster (R) of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House transportation committee, has a plan to fix that. His aviation bill would greatly increase the amount spent on airports and air-traffic systems, mostly by taking the Aviation Trust Fund off budget. That means the ticket taxes collected could only be spent on aviation.

For budgetary reasons, that's a bad idea. Social Security is one thing, but if every other trust fund is taken off budget, Congress and the president will be in a spending straightjacket, unable to move funds where they are most needed at any given time. The Shuster plan would spend the entire transportation budget on highways and aviation to the exclusion of other transportation needs.

Better to leave the trust fund in the general budget but mandate greater annual spending for aviation. The FAA's short-term steps are welcome, but only stepped-up investment in infrastructure and equipment will soothe the turbulence in the nation's airways.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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