Flight delays start in Washington

President Bush is pressuring airlines to ease congestion, but that's really the government's responsibility.

President Bush's recent steps to ease holiday air travel are appreciated. But he's using a helicopter to traverse a challenge that requires a jet. If he wants to help the industry get past its worst year of flight delays and to reduce congestion, he must insist on urgency from the federal government.

Of all of his air-travel announcements last week, the most important was freeing up restricted military airspace along the East Coast during the Thanksgiving period. That gives planes an extra lane in the sky highway. But most of his plans focus on the airlines, and that emphasis is misplaced.

One of his ideas is to charge airlines a "congestion fee" at peak travel times at overloaded airports. Another is to "cap" the number of flights airlines can schedule at heavily used JFK Airport in New York. The aim is to stop the airlines from scheduling more flights than an airport can handle.

But these solutions don't get at the underlying problems of not enough airport or airspace capacity, which is primarily a government responsibility.

The flaws in the administration's approach can be seen in its handling of congestion in the New York City-New Jersey region. Specifically, the administration wants airlines to voluntarily cut back the number of peak-time flights scheduled at JFK Airport, where flights have jumped 44 percent since 2004. If not, expect caps, fees, or both.

The feds are rightly concentrating on a region that generates two-thirds of the delays nationwide. But the problems at JFK stem from capacity issues beyond the airlines' control. The airport has four runways, but often only two or three are in use. A big bottleneck is inadequate staffing of air-traffic controllers – the domain of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Another is growth at 12 lesser, regional airports, fueled by a boom in private and corporate jet travel and smaller commercial planes. These aircraft help clog the skies, which are the FAA's to manage.

Airlines are merely responding to increased demand from passengers and competition from other carriers. They legitimately worry that if they vacate slots, some upstart airline will fill it.

Yes, the feds can cap flights at JFK, but that will simply push carriers to other airports. And yes, they could charge congestion fees, but demand in New York is so high, and these flights are so interconnected, that the fees will simply be passed on to consumers. Neither action will reduce the traffic that causes delays.

Airlines can do a much better job in fully reporting delays and caring for passengers during them. But by pointing so strongly to the airlines, the administration is quite deftly pointing away from itself.

A rise in retiring controllers and other staffing issues need prompt attention. Meanwhile, Congress and the administration act as if they have all the time in the world for the national switch from radar traffic control to a more efficient satellite global positioning system (GPS) – at least 10 years away.

The country is in air-travel trouble, and demand is increasing, yet Congress languishes on funding a GPS system. And is there no way to speed implementation? Dallas and Atlanta are already using GPS on a small scale; New York could, too. What's to pressure the government, if the focus is on the airlines?

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