In this summer of everpresent flight delays, complaint-saturated airlines are finding that less altitude can mean less attitude.
An FAA policy change is now allowing commercial airliners to fly 6,000 to 17,000 feet lower than usual to ease congestion at airports. In essence, the new rules let air-traffic controllers pack more planes into the air after bad-weather delays.
While airline passengers might not relish the thought of looking out their windows and seeing the ground closer than normal, officials say there's no safety risk - and only a slight chance of a bumpier ride. Critics counter that it will simply shift the delays from the ground to the air, as planes circle while waiting for a limited number of landing slots.
But with passengers exasperated by hours of delays in terminals and on runways, airlines are increasingly flying the lower routes to get passengers off the ground on time.
It "has already made a significant difference on several occasions where bad weather was experienced," says Elizabeth Isham Cory, spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). "The controllers definitely see this as a benefit, because they are able to move traffic."
Airliners normally fly at 24,000 to 35,000 feet because the air at that altitude is thinner and fuel costs are therefore lower. But officials say there are only a few lanes open in that "highway in the sky."
After a prolonged thunderstorm at an airport, these highways aren't big enough to handle all the planes that need to use it. By allowing flights at 18,000 to 23,000 feet, another lane is opened, and more aircraft can be pumped into the skies.
Airlines including American, United, Delta, and Northwest have begun using the new thoroughfares, called Low Altitude Arrival/Departure Routes, or LAADR (pronounced "ladder"), despite the cost.
The reason: passengers. Lots of them.
Last year saw 664.5 million passengers - the largest number in the history of the industry. That figure is expected to grow to 1 billion by 2010, according to the FAA. And, proportionately, the number of route-clogging jets is going up even faster than that, as airlines replace low-flying turboprops with higher-flying small jets.
Too many planes - especially at peak periods - have led to record delays and consumer outrage. In an effort to fix the problem, Congress has proposed legislation to help air travelers, putting pressure on the FAA and the airlines. That led to the unveiling this spring of the severe-weather plan that includes LAADR.
But critics charge that LAADR is not solving delays. If there aren't enough landing slots at the destination airport, LAADR merely creates delays in the air, they say.
To prevent this, the FAA had implemented a policy 20 years ago called "ground stops." The idea was to delay planes on the ground to avoid excessive fuel consumption and the safety concerns associated with circling crowded airports.
But "consumers and the airlines are complaining a great deal about ground stops, so the FAA is under pressure to get more planes up in the air," says Paul Hudson of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, an industry watchdog.
He also notes that airlines are, in some cases, concentrating too many arrivals and departures at peak weekday hours (between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.), exceeding an airport's capacity and leading to delays.
American Airlines spokesman Al Becker says his airline likes LAADR. "We've been using it for a couple of months," he says. "It allows the industry to make much more efficient use of the airspace at high-density airports."
The new policy will not impact noise levels, since aircraft will take off and land at the same trajectory, and jets at 18,000 feet can barely be heard from the ground. Officials say the only safety concern is a slight increase in the probability and intensity of turbulence.
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