Now we know how overwhelmed air traffic controllers feel. The response to our Sept. 10 cover story, "Fear and Loathing at the Airport," jammed our in-boxes. Many writers agreed with the story's central point: that the chaos in the air reflects the chaos on the ground. "Nobody is in charge," we wrote. "The various players in the system, including big airlines, small aircraft owners, labor unions, politicians, airplane manufacturers, and executives with their corporate jets, are locked in permanent warfare as they fight to protect their own interests." We emphasized the surprising inability of the Federal Aviation Administration, over many decades, to corral these groups. But many readers singled out other parties for greater blame. A few argued that our story was too harsh in its assessment of FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey. Only one thing united all of the writers: their anger and frustration with America's overburdened air traffic system.
>> Your story completely mischaracterizes FAA chief Blakey's passionate approach to safety and her track record at the FAA. In two interviews, Blakey stressed that the U.S. is currently in the safest period of aviation in history.
The recent $1.8 billion FAA contract award to ITT to launch the construction of a new, satellite-based air transportation system is viewed by most observers as more than "some tentative progress" toward building a system capable of handling increasing volumes of air traffic. Far from being "unable to do anything," Blakey also aggressively stepped in when mounting delays snarled O'Hare in 2003 and achieved a voluntary scheduling agreement with the airlines that untangled the mess. In a short five-year term, Blakey leaves the agency with 97% of major capital programs on time and on budget and with a plan for a reliable, stable source of funding for the FAA that will pay for a radical transformation of air traffic services.
Robert A. Sturgell,
Deputy Administrator, FAA
>> What on earth led you to the conclusion that one FAA Administrator can solve that morass within the limits of a five-year term? Marion Blakey showed the leadership and resolve to create the true organizational and financial accountability within the FAA that is needed to improve our nation's aviation infrastructure and safety oversight. For the time being, it will be tough flying until greater capacity and new technology are added to the system.
Greg Martin, Alexandria, Va.
(Martin was the FAA's chief spokesperson from 2002 to 2006.)
>> Great article and exposé on the issues surrounding the airline industry. Between terrorism and security threats, archaic technology, self-interests, bureaucracy, and government inaction, it's an alarming state of affairs the airline industry is in. It will probably take a major disaster to get the U. S. to get serious about taking definitive action on the crisis. Having lived for a couple of years in Singapore as an expatriate, I observed how a government can take proactive steps to prevent negative consequences from happening and enhance the living standards of its people. Let's stop the bickering, do the right things, and return this country to greatness.
Thurston Lee, Tempe, Ariz.
>> The solution [to air traffic congestion] is easy: Strong regulation would immediately allow the auctioning of gate spaces at the busiest airports and limitations on the number of aircraft taking off. Minimum service standards would be set, and the owners of corporate aircraft would be forced to pay a larger share of air system costs. The terrible passenger conditions of this summer were all totally unnecessary.
John Wetherhold, New York
>> With the obvious overcrowding at major airports and very few alternatives to flying for long distances, perhaps the question should be asked, particularly of business travelers: "Is this flight necessary?" With the improvement in the Internet and the availability of conference calls--with the parties able to be seen on TV screens--do we really need face-to-face contact for many business travelers?
Nelson Marans, Silver Spring, Md.
>> While it may be argued that government-provided infrastructure contributes to the sorry state of air travel today, that ignores the real cause. In a rush to fill the few airplanes they have left, the airlines have cut schedules and staff. They may be profitable for now, but this is temporary. They whine about the surge in corporate jet travel, yet ignore the fact that this is a direct result of their unsatisfactory schedules, lousy customer service, and uncaring employees. They created this "problem."
J.A. Sanford, Eighty Four, Pa.
>> As a pilot for American Airlines (AMR ) out of O'Hare, I was confused and disappointed by your lack of discussion of one of the primary causes of our air travel mess: excessive use of regional jets. A regional jet seating 37 to 50 passengers takes up the same airspace as a 150-seat aircraft. It doesn't take a math whiz to figure out that you could replace three of the smaller aircraft with one of the larger and haul the same number of passengers in a much more timely fashion.
Jeff Clauser, Chicago
>> Until all the big-picture questions get answered, surely the short-term answer is for the airlines to raise prices. Excess demand and pricing power can cure a lot of problems, from more profits to a decrease in traffic and an increase in safety and customer satisfaction.
Ray Santilli, Oklahoma City
>> As a frequent traveler, I strive to avoid hub airports. If I can fly to within about 90 minutes' drive time of my destination and avoid Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, Denver, or Las Vegas, then I take the trip. I usually need a car at my destination anyway.
Rick Cunnington, Oro Valley, Ariz.
>> How long will it take Americans to understand that rail travel helps all forms of transportation? Airports are overtaxed, roads are overextended, infrastructure is in a dangerous state of disrepair, yet we keep tearing up unused (or underused) railroad beds. Rail travel makes sense--while saving dollars.
Dennis R. Fakes, Huntsville, Ala.
>> When I saw your Sept. 10 cover, I was sure you were writing about my most recent two-day-by-plane trip from Ohio to Maine. I experienced everything in the article except a near-miss. My early-morning flight from Akron to Canton, Ohio, was canceled. My evening flight the same day was delayed three hours, causing a missed connection by minutes. I stayed overnight in Chicago without my luggage. I arrived in Portland, Me., to find no luggage. I ended up wearing the same clothes for three days and one night. Upon returning home, I found a $75 voucher from United Airlines (UAUA ). It is said that "getting there is half the fun." I'm not sure when I'll feel up to having that much fun again.
Gloria Fleck, Paris, Ohio
>> My husband and I were victims of a July 15 Atlantic Southeast flight. We arrived at the assigned departure gate (with my husband in a wheelchair). Our gate was reassigned five or six times. At about 11 p.m. we boarded. Moments later we were told to disembark because the crew's allowable time was overextended. They offered us a blanket, two meal vouchers for the airport concessions worth about $7, and reassignment to a flight the next night. The next day we opted to rent a car and drive to our destination. Immediately on returning home, I checked to see if the flight we could have taken arrived on time. It also was canceled! The airlines' problems go beyond the logistics of moving planes around.
Jean M. Creswick, Ten Mile, Tenn.