Help needed for aviation overload

A Times Editorial
Published November 17, 2007

Nothing screams the start of the holiday season like flight delays, lost luggage, bumped passengers or canceled flights. That's why the flying public should applaud President Bush's attempt to make air travel this Thanksgiving a little more bearable. It's a start, if not a solution.

The president's moves do not address the fundamental problems with an overloaded commercial aviation system. They are solid steps to build on, and the White House's involvement should get the industry's attention. Bush announced that commercial flights would be allowed to use restricted military airspace on the Eastern Seaboard. That should ease congestion at major airports in New York, Boston and Washington as well as across the system nationwide, because delays in the Northeast reverberate across the country. The Federal Aviation Administration said it might use the expanded routes again at Christmas and suspend all nonessential airport construction during both holiday periods.

The president has helped by calling out the industry on the sorry state of air travel. Nearly one in four flights has arrived late this year, according to the Transportation Department, the worst on-time record since data collection began in 1995. The White House said it would move to double the amount, currently $400, that airlines must pay to passengers who are bumped from overbooked flights. The FAA also is considering new punitive measures against airlines that fudge their on-time departure and arrival performance.

The air transportation system has far bigger problems, from a lack of investment by airports and the airlines to the loss of experienced air traffic controllers who are retiring in droves. According to the FAA, more than 740-million passengers flew last year, a number expected to reach 1-billion by 2015. Demand on the air traffic control system is expected to increase by a third in the coming decade. The U.S. Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, says the system "cannot be expanded to meet this expected growth."

The next-generation air traffic control system under development could cost up to $42-billion, with half paid by the federal government. Putting that system in place will require a commitment from Congress. The nation's airports also need to spend more on capital improvements, from new gates and passenger terminals to baggage-handling facilities. The airlines will also need to increase staffing, even amid the spike in oil prices.

The steps the president announced Thursday may seem small. But it is no small thing to have the White House recognize how poorly air carriers are serving their passengers.