Crowded flights go nowhere fast

Europe and US seek solutions for already overtaxed system - with traffic expected to double by 2010.

From Poland to Portugal, Sweden to Sicily, this has been a miserable summer for holidaymakers traveling by air.

Like similarly snarled fliers in the US, European travelers have been subjected to near-record flight delays. And the outlook for improvement here is even bleaker than in America. "We are totally frustrated," says Karl-Heinz Neumeister, secretary-general of the Association of European Airlines in Brussels. "And I am not optimistic that things will change quickly."

As more and more passengers pack onto more and more planes worldwide, air traffic control systems are creaking under the strain, aviation experts say. Unable to juggle all the planes that want to fly, controllers are simply keeping them - and their angry passengers - grounded.

Nowhere is the problem worse than the route between Milan, Italy's brand-new Malpensa airport and London's Heathrow, where 80 percent of flights left an average of 35 minutes late in June. Overall in Europe, 26 percent of flights were more 15 minutes late in the three months before June 30, according to European Airline Association figures.

US passengers have fumed too this summer, as unusually bad weather and the United Airlines labor dispute contributed to the delay of nearly 100,000 flights in June and July.

US Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater announced on Monday the creation of a federal task force to monitor airline performance and report back to him in 90 days. Mr Slater noted that 670 million Americans will fly this year, up 20 million from 1999 figures. "We are taxing the system," he added.

At least the US system is unified. "The problems in North America are far easier to deal with than in Europe," says Barry Blair, former head of Canada's air traffic control agency. "There, the problems are much more complex."

European air traffic control is divided between 31 national systems using 68 control centers. "The nightmare of trying to coordinate their operations is only now becoming reality," observed a recent report by the Air Transport Action Group, a Geneva-based international aviation-industry body.

The European Commission (EC) - the European Union's executive body in Brussels - has been trying to wake the Continent from this nightmare for the past four years, urging its plan for a "single sky" over Europe. European Union Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio, who has put the issue firmly on the agenda, has estimated that flight delays cost the EU $5 billion a year.

But she has run up against fierce resistance to her proposed reforms. French air traffic controllers, voicing fears that European air traffic control might be privatized, staged a one-day strike in June that caused havoc with flights all over Europe.

Nor are European governments much keener. Protective of their sovereignty in the air, reluctant to give up control of airspace now reserved for their military planes, and boasting of their air safety record, government officials across the Continent have stymied reform.

"Each country should remain free to organize its own system," said French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot the last time European ministers discussed the subject. The airlines, however, have taken heart from the way EU chief Romano Prodi has chosen solving airport chaos as a way to endear his bureaucracy to Europe's citizenry. "Our hopes are now vested in the EC," says Mr. Neumeister. "If we planned as if there were no borders, we would win a lot."

Even that radical reform, however, would not solve all the problems, experts are agreed. "One system for all of Europe would be an incremental improvement. It would be easier to manage, but there is no magic bullet," says Mr. Blair, who now advises Eastern European countries as they modernize their air traffic control systems.

A whopping 774 million European passengers are expected to be flying each year by 2010, more than double the 1993 figure, and over some parts of Europe airplane traffic has increased by 50 percent over the past decade.

Air traffic control technology has improved, but it has not kept up with this increased demand. And other factors, too, have worsened the congestion that so often makes air travel a trial. A shortage of runways at the world's busiest airports is especially hard to remedy. Finding flat, unoccupied land near large cities has become virtually impossible, but passengers do not like to travel a long way to an airport.

PASSENGERS themselves complicate an air traffic controller's life, because business travelers like to leave early and return in the evening, encouraging airlines to schedule lots of flights at those times. "If there are 15 flights scheduled to leave at about the same time, one of them is going to leave first, and one of them is going to leave 15th," points out Blair. "Delays are inevitable."

Many aviation experts insist that air traffic control would be more efficient if it were run by private corporations (as it is in Germany, Canada, and New Zealand) rather than government departments. "Civil servants are slower to respond to market demand and change than private companies," argues Philip Hogge, director of infrastructure at the Brussels office of the International Air Travel Association, which groups the world's major airlines. "They just don't move quickly enough."

But with privatization a long way off - both in America and Europe - and improvements in efficiency only incremental, safety considerations make delays inevitable. "You have delays because you keep aircraft on the ground rather than overload the airspace," says Mr. Hogge. "Keeping aircraft on the ground is your safety valve." And with air traffic expected to keep growing indefinitely, Blair predicts gloomily, "This problem will be with us forever ... and people will continue to be unhappy with the level of service."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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