- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 1999

The chairman of United Airlines warned this week of a crisis in the overcrowded global aviation system, joining a growing number of critics who say the air-traffic control system can’t efficiently manage the planes.
“I believe we are at a true point of crisis … that is the crisis of inadequate capacity air-traffic control and infrastructure to meet the continually growing demand for air travel,” United Airlines Chairman James Goodwin said Monday night at an aviation industry conference in Chicago.
Government officials and industry groups are growing concerned that the increasing number of airplanes is outdating the world’s air-traffic control system and say that more money is needed to fix the problem.
The number of delayed flights grew 43 percent in the six months from April to September compared with a year earlier.
But clogged skies are not affecting safety, and no passengers on commercial airlines died on domestic flights in 1998.
Two highly publicized crashes occurred in 1997, but they were not because of increasing air traffic. ValuJet Flight 592 crashed the Florida Everglades and killed 110 persons, and TWA Flight 800 exploded off Long Island, killing 230.
“If you don’t fix the air-traffic control system, it will all move to gridlock,” said David Fuscus, spokesman for the D.C.-based Air Transport Association, which represents domestic commercial airlines carrying 90 percent of all U.S. passengers.
With a strong U.S. economy spurring more Americans to travel, the number of domestic flights has increased and shows no sign of slowing.
Airlines made 33.2 million domestic flights in fiscal 1999, which ended Sept. 30, according to Federal Aviation Administration estimates. That is expected to grow 22 percent by fiscal 2010.
The number of passengers will increase 63 percent from 614 million in 1998 to an estimated 1 billion in 2010, according to the FAA.
“Moving the demand we’re projecting through the infrastructure we have will be like trying to flow Lake Michigan through a garden hose,” said Mr. Goodwin, chairman of one of the world’s three largest airlines.
Consumer groups are pushing for even more flights to cut delays and accommodate passengers.
Airlines are scheduling more flights during the most popular flying times, but it’s not helping ease congestion at airports, said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a D.C.-based consumer advocacy group.
Even while domestic flights increase, there is little fear among industry groups that flying is becoming less safe because domestic air-traffic controllers simply ground flights when the volume of planes becomes too great.
But that leads to more delays.
Mr. Goodwin warned that one-third of the largest 100 U.S. airports could expect more than 20,000 hours of delays per year by 2012 if traffic increases as U.S. officials predict.
Adding even more flights could ease crowding on planes, Mr. Stempler said, but airports must build more runways and more gates for planes to manage any increase in the number of flights.
Money for that could come from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, a $10 billion fund into which taxes on all airline tickets are funneled.
Rep. Bud Shuster, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, is sponsoring a bill that requires Congress to spend all ticket taxes collected on airport improvements.
The taxes 8 percent of the value of each ticket are deposited in the trust fund, but Mr. Shuster said only $8 billion of the $10 billion collected this year will be spent.
The rest, as in past years, will be left on the federal government ledger sheet to contribute to a balanced budget and will reach $71 billion in 10 years if it’s not spent, Mr. Shuster said.
“If the needs aren’t there, we ought to cut the tax. But the needs are there,” he said. “We are hurtling toward gridlock and catastrophe in the sky because of the increase in flying and because of the antiquated air-traffic control system.”
While Mr. Shuster argued that increased spending could improve safety and efficiency of the air-traffic control system domestically, U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater Monday proposed a treaty to improve safety of international flights by requiring U.S. carriers to audit their foreign partners to assess their training and maintenance.
Mr. Slater urged aviation officials representing 90 countries to work toward a global treaty, but said such an accord does not appear imminent.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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