- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Federal Aviation Administration hopes to have a plan to cut airline delays 20 percent on the East Coast in place by the end of summer, Administrator Marion C. Blakey said yesterday.

The plan would change some flight patterns by redesigning airspace over New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey and would help reduce delay times at Washington-area airports.

“When you know that within the next 18 months you can drop delays by about 20 percent, that’s big,” Mrs. Blakey told editors and reporters at The Washington Times. “And this is just with changing the airspace — it is not high technology or very expensive new runways.”

Flights on U.S. airlines arrived late more often during the first five months of this year than in any other year since the government began tracking delays in 1995, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

The FAA plan has taken a decade to develop because of the complexities in drafting flight plans that affect the fewest number of residential areas, Mrs. Blakey said. The agency has held 120 meetings with community groups in recent years regarding the plan.

“Anytime you move an aircraft over someone’s house, that person squawks,” she said. “To be fair, you have to have a lot of literal engineering work. Airspace is real estate like anything else.”

The agency also had to follow strict environmental regulations regarding noise pollution and aircraft emissions before drafting the final plan, as well as convincing Capitol Hill lawmakers of the plan’s merits.

“What I have tried to assure community groups and members of Congress over and over again is, we’re not insensitive,” she said. “If our model turns up this or that [problem], you continue to try to make adaptations to try to have the least possible negative impact on communities.”

The plan requires approval from Congress. If it is rejected, airport delays — already on pace to reach record-high levels — will significantly worsen, Mrs. Blakey said.

“It is not as though there’s a good alternative to this,” she said. “It would be a shame to lose 10 years of work because people are fearful.”

FAA would be forced to place tight caps on the number of flights that airlines and airports could operate if the plan fails to win congressional approval.

“And caps mean [an airport] may not have new start-up service. It means you don’t have as much service to smaller communities,” she said. “There are a lot of problems with caps.”

Despite gridlock and airline delays that have affected airports across the nation this summer, Mrs. Blakey gave the region’s three major airports — Washington Dulles International, Ronald Reagan Washington National and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall — high marks.

“There is plenty of [extra] runway space and even airspace to serve Reagan. … And [BWI] is doing well,” she said.

Dulles, which had reported a drop in passengers last year attributed mostly to the bankruptcy and grounding of Independence Air in early 2006, is recovering well, she said.

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