- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 28, 2001

They said the problem would go away. Two years ago they said everything would get better. It hasn't. Airline passenger complaints and delays remain on a steady ascent, having risen 88 percent since 1997, while the number of new flights has risen 6.5 percent. With a summer airfare war already in flight, don't expect things to get any better.

Congress says the problem is twofold: the airports' infrastructure and the airlines' reluctance to change their monopoly-like practices. Consider Chicago's O'Hare Airport, which has become the bain of existence for almost any air traveler. O'Hare is the second busiest airport in the land and rates third worst for on-time performance, with delays averaging three-and-a-half hours and causing a ripple effect throughout the nation. This is where Congress wants to step in, because O'Hare is the only airport of the nation's 27 largest not to have planned or built new runways in the last decade. More runways and, as Republicans have suggested, another airport would ease gridlock and create price competition.

As things stand, American and United Airlines use O'Hare as their hub, controlling 85 percent of O'Hare's air travel. And, American (which the Justice Department is pursuing on predatory pricing charges) and United reported larger-than-expected losses in the second quarter. Meanwhile, smaller airlines are struggling, so the availability of more airlines would strengthen the industry and allow businesses and leisure travelers more options. But the small airlines must be allowed the airport space to function and function well. So, in that sense, the Justice Department's interests in anti-trust laws is indeed important.

The Senate is still in a holding pattern on a so-called passengers' bill of rights, which would, among other things, force airlines to disclose on-time percentages of specific flights, make airlines more accountable for lost luggage and limit the airlines from booking flights that will knowingly be delayed or canceled.

But political gridlock is a major problem, too. Bill Clinton overlooked Mayor Ricahrd Daley's lack of action in expanding O'Hare, perhaps because Mr. Daley's brother, Bill, was Mr. Clinton's commerce secretary and prior to that was was a lobbyist for United. There is now, though, bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for change. And the Senate is considerating legislation that would (unfortunately) force Chicago to expand O'Hare. The House, meanwhile, held a hearing on runway incursions, renewing interest a satellite trafficking systems, which were proposed years ago, and would allow more planes to fly different patterns and allow smaller airlines more space another threat to large companies.

Congress and the industry must address the runway and antitrust issues before passengers' concerns are really and truly resolved. The airlines, for their part, have instituted more than two dozen voluntary changes mostly in an effort to fend off Sen. Ron Wyden's passengers' bill of rights. "It will take a while to get the infrastructure improved," the Oregon Democrat told editors of this page, "so we need to get accurate information now." Passengers, however, deserve more than blinking billboards.

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