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Proposed Improvements to Flying

Ulla Puggaard

Photo: Ulla Puggaard

Even before the FAA's report was released, overscheduling had prompted a flurry of government proposals. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has also suggested imposing congestion surcharges on the airlines, to encourage them to reduce the number of flights during busy times. On Capitol Hill, support is growing for legislation that would ease antitrust rules so airlines would be able to confer about cutting back peak-hour flights. Though government officials would oversee the process, there is still concern that such talks might significantly hinder competition, especially if smaller airlines and consumer groups aren't allowed to participate.

Pending legislation would also require airlines to warn customers about regularly scheduled flights that are late and/or canceled 40 percent of the time or more. (Currently, this information is given only when customers request it.) "People wouldn't take these flights if they knew they were excessively late," says Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project. Hudson also would like the FAA to make airlines eliminate "deceptively scheduled" flights, those that are late or canceled at least 80 percent of the time. The number of such flights jumped 390 percent last year, to 40,686 from 8,348 in 1999. Mead flagged this development in his congressional testimony this spring, but so far no one has addressed the problem.

Not surprisingly, airline lobbyists don't like the emphasis on scheduling. "Our goal is to shift the focus from short-term remedies to long-term solutions," says Michael Wascom, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the trade group that represents the major carriers. Still, ATA officials do acknowledge that overscheduling causes problems. And two carriers, Delta and American Airlines, have already revamped their hub schedules voluntarily, garnering praise from FAA administrator Jane Garvey and congressional leaders. Last fall, American rerouted nearly all its flights (more than 300) between Chicago's O'Hare and its spoke destinations. Instead of continuing to a different city after reaching the destination, each plane now returns to Chicago, to prevent delays there from reverberating around the country. Marty Heires, an American spokesman, says the airline has noted improvements in containing delays when there's bad weather in Chicago, but the carrier doesn't have official data.

In April, Delta altered schedules at its Atlanta hub, reorganizing some 1,000 flights. Like American at O'Hare, Delta's hourly flights from Atlanta to major cities now operate on an "out and back" basis, with the same planes flying back and forth between the two cities. "I strongly recommend that other airlines review what Delta did to see if similar measures can be considered," Representative John Mica, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Aviation Subcommittee, noted this spring.

Without action, the FAA predicts that serious delays will continue at six of the eight most congested airports, with Los Angeles joining the ranks in the next decade. Atlanta and Boston, for their part, are expected to do better, as new runways are completed by 2005. Such construction is often cited as one of the best longer-term strategies for reducing delays. Unfortunately, many airports simply have no room to expand: Newark, for example, would have to build on the New Jersey Turnpike. And airports that do have adjacent space often face opposition from environmentalists or anti-noise activists. Then there's the high cost, although Congress has authorized $10 billion over the next several years for airport improvements.

Rerouting flights to regional airports is the second most logical suggestion. "It's so obvious that we have this capacity," says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, a corporate-travel interest group. "But the airlines don't want to take flights away from their hubs." Together, the 31 busiest airports served 70 percent of passengers from October 2000 through March 2001, even though they account for just 6 percent of the country's 546 commercial airports. Some airports, such as Boston's Logan, have recently begun promoting nearby regional alternatives to cut back passenger volume.


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