Get Ready for More Time on the Tarmac

Congress is still fussing over customer service instead of what's really needed to tackle flight delays -- more runways and better air-traffic-control gear

By Nicole St. Pierre

As the peak summer flying season approaches, don't count on runways being any less congested than they were a year ago. Little in aviation has changed since the tumultuous summer of 2000, when one in four airline flights was delayed more than 55 minutes -- or canceled, according to the Transportation Dept.

Of course, frustrated fliers are hoping this will be the year lawmakers finally give them some relief. But instead of looking for ways to tackle aviation's most crippling problems, lawmakers are introducing dozens of bills aimed at so-called passenger rights. Sounds good, but that's as far as it goes. "Lawmakers are blurring the root of the problem, which is air-traffic control and no new airport expansion," says Faye Malarkey, chief lobbyist at the Regional Airline Assn. in Washington, which represents regional carriers.

Despite projections that passenger traffic would swell in 2000, not one drop of concrete has been poured for new runways this year. No state-of-the-art equipment has replaced the antiquated gadgets that outfit most air-traffic-control towers today. Add to that the 6% increase in regional jets competing for runway space this year, the fact that airlines persist in overbooking during peak flying times, and the four pending labor strikes that could simultaneously come to head -- and suddenly, last summer's travel horrors could look positively benign.


  What can Congress do? At the very least, lawmakers should step in and limit the number of take-off and landing slots allowed at airports on a given day. Take the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. On average, 57 flights are scheduled in a 10-minute period around the 6 p.m. rush hour. The airport's capacity is 35 flights. Even if the weather is perfect from coast to coast and no equipment problems crop up, 22 flights would automatically be delayed.

Alas, beyond that, there's little that could save travelers from more delays this summer. President George W. Bush recognizes that the priority should be more runway construction. In the past 15 years, only two new runways have been built at U.S. airports. During that time, passenger travel has rocketed 400%, according to Transportation Dept. estimates.

Last year, Congress did give $10 billion in extra funding to boost construction. Problem is, environmental regulations have prevented port authorities from getting the O.K. to lay a yard of new tarmac. (Many airports are located in flat, wetland areas.) Republicans are expected to push through a bill that would streamline the environmental regulations, but they could face Democratic opposition. It's time for both sides to come to a compromise that both speeds up runway construction and protects sensitive wetland areas.

Another Bush priority: modernizing air-traffic-control operations. By turning the air-traffic-control arm of the Federal Aviation Agency over to a private nonprofit corporation, new technology could be brought to the market faster, the Bush Administration says. Sounds on target. But then Bush has put in place a Democratic Transportation Secretary who is adamantly opposed to privatizing this area. Bottom line: Don't count on any FAA reforms soon.


  President Clinton took his shot at making the agency more efficient before leaving office. In December, he issued an executive order that gave the FAA leeway to skip the drawn-out government-procurement process and bring new technology to control towers faster. At the time, federal lawmakers applauded the idea. But when the FAA signed a multimillion-dollar contract in March with Lockheed Martin without opening the bidding to other companies, some of those same lawmakers blasted the agency for acting too hastily.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta says charging airlines steep fees to use airports during peak hours -- so called congestion pricing -- would ease delays. Probably -- but the Transportation Dept. has been studying that idea for more than four years now. So far, it hasn't gotten off the ground, most likely because regional airlines, like Air Tran and Frontier, are screaming that they don't have the financial heft to compete with the Big Six carriers for rush-hour slots.

Let's face it. Limiting airport slots would take political guts. Major airlines would likely use big lobbying guns to fight any such restriction. Last year, when Congress was focusing on lousy customer service, the Big Six gave more than $7 million in campaign contributions, vs. the $3.8 million the entire industry gave in the 1996 Presidential election year.


  Is there any hope at all for tired and grumpy fliers? Lobbyists predict that the aviation bill most likely to taxi its way through Congress will be Senator John McCain's (R-Ariz.) Airline Customer Improvement Act. The bill gives peeved passengers the right to bring breach-of-contract lawsuits against airlines when service is too terrible. Never mind the profusion of finger-pointing between airlines and air-traffic controllers so that it would be almost impossible to prove who's to blame for a flight delay. Not to mention that it would take years and a lot of dough to battle a major airline in court. "The McCain bill, as far as it goes, is fine, but that's not the complete solution in our view," says Paul Ruden, senior vice-president of the American Society of Travel Agents.

The sad fact is that while the intent to improve airline customer service is a good one, the parade of customer-service legislation moving through Congress this session would do little to improve flying conditions. Until Congress and the White House display the courage to address what's really behind the delays, you can expect more awful summers at the airport.

St. Pierre covers aviation and transportation issues for BusinessWeek in Washington

Edited by Beth Belton

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