Prime-Time Flying Fees

Air travelers long have felt the effects of gridlock on the tarmac. While there has been improvement in reducing flight delays this summer, congestion and delays still abound at the busiest airports, and consumers remain frustrated (see related story, p. 2).

One long-term solution - building new runways - has been the focus of the Bush administration, but that effort has been stymied by environmental concerns and public opposition.

Is there a quicker solution? One idea comes from Department of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. He says some sort of "market-based pricing" may be needed to provide incentives for air carriers to better space their flights and reduce airport logjams. His notion has merit, and is worth trying out.

The idea: Make airlines pay higher takeoff and landing fees during airport "rush hours." A moneymaking scheme for airports? Possibly. But it would at least provide some needed money to build more runways and improve terminals.

For customers, the move could even turn out to be "revenue neutral," if airlines pay more for the rush-hour time slots. People who want to fly at "rush hour" out of convenience, or necessity, would pay more, while passengers willing to take a "red eye," or fly at other nonpeak times, would pay less. It works for the phone companies - why not the airlines?

Such a scheme, if it works, should not let airports and airlines avoid seeking other solutions. Now that flying has become as commonplace as buying stock, airports still need new runways, air traffic control still needs upgrading, and airlines still need to figure out handling over-crowding.

While market incentives may help unjam airports, the long-term effects are uncertain. Trying this idea out at a single airport, like New York's La Guardia, which has the highest percentage of delays, may be a good first step. And maybe airlines will discover that providing real on-time arrivals and departures is more important to passengers than an unrealistic stacking of flights during prime time.

DOT began a 90-day public-comment period last week on this proposal. The flying public can weigh in at this website - - click on "Search" and enter "9849" under "Docket Number."

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