U.S. airlines can use military airspace off the East Coast this holiday weekend to cut delays that are the second-worst on record so far this year.
The space was freed up yesterday at 6 p.m. and will be available until 7 a.m. Tuesday, covering the Memorial Day holiday and beginning the busy summer travel period. The Defense Department previously opened airspace during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
"It gives airlines a fighting chance to beat delays," Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said.
U.S. regulators are taking steps to reduce congestion, particularly in New York, where delays ripple nationwide. About 71 percent of U.S. flights arrived on time this year through March, trailing only 1996 for most delays in a first quarter.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will have procedures in place by June 5 to reduce the spacing of some aircraft at high altitudes to 50 miles from 90 miles. The FAA said the action will help reduce delays.
The FAA and Defense Department steps will help, said Dave Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an Arlington trade group. "It doesn't solve the delay problem. It certainly is a step in the right direction."
Airlines have been seeking greater use of the military corridor between New York and Florida after they used it as many as 25 times an hour from Nov. 21 through Nov. 25, when the zone was opened during the Thanksgiving holiday.
Use of the space by airlines will be limited and "probably not" be available for the full summer, Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne said.
"It's my responsibility to ensure we have the airspace available to do training and execute our missions," Mr. Wynne said in response to a question after a luncheon speech in Washington.
Delayed flights cost the U.S. economy as much as $41 billion last year, according to a study released yesterday by Congress' Joint Economic Committee.
Airlines absorbed $19 billion of those costs, including $1.6 billion in fuel. The toll on passengers was $12 billion in lost time. Other industries such as food service, lodging and retail incurred $10 billion in "indirect" expenses.