- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2001

More than two decades after U.S. airlines were deregulated, the nation's air transportation system is booming to the tune of 93,000 flights per day. The number of passengers using the system has grown nearly threefold. There are an additional 100,000 new passengers added to the system each and every day. Average fares have come down in real terms, and the discount fares paid by most leisure travelers are as low, or lower, than those charged by buses or trains.
More cities have competitive air service. The number of monopoly markets is far lower. People around this country have access to almost any destination in the world, often with one stop or less. Shippers have also benefited from the expansion of air service, indeed 40 percent of the world's cargo, by value, now travels by air. The result is more travel, more business and more growth. In fact, the formula has worked so well, that nations around the world have followed the U.S. example and deregulated their own air transportation systems.
So why are there so many articles about how awful the system is? Why do delays and congestion plague air travel and inconvenience consumers?
The simple answer is that our air transportation system is a victim of its own success. There has been a convergence of factors in the past few years that, taken together, threaten to grind the U.S. air transportation system to a halt and with it the business and leisure plans of travelers throughout the nation.
First, our air traffic control system is not adequate to handle the growing demand and has not been for some years. Second, our system of aviation infrastructure on the ground has reached its saturation point at certain very busy airports. On top of this looms a third factor the fact that labor negotiations at several airlines have reached a critical point, with work stoppages possible throughout the spring and summer. If this occurs, consumers will suffer this year, just as they have in years past from unpredictable flight cancellations and the inability to be accommodated on flights that do leave.
What do all three of these converging factors have in common? All currently or prospectively cause delays and breakdowns in the system. All involve various interests and parties that have talked about these issues, but only talked about them. And all involve interests and parties who easily blame one another for the problems, but rarely sit down to work together on the solutions.
There have been at least six federal reports over the last decade calling for air traffic control system reform. Everyone knows it must be done, but we allow differences of perspective on the causes and solutions to impede progress.
While air traffic in the last decade has doubled, only one new major airport has been built. It is no easier to build just a new runway at an existing airport. Phoenix recently completed a new runway after a 36-year effort. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce held a two-day meeting recently to focus on the problems created for U.S. businesses by the lack of adequate air traffic control and airport capacity.
And there are at least four airlines (American, Delta, Northwest and United) facing work stoppages in the coming months as a result of lengthy negotiations, which have failed to produce settlements.
The new administration has an opportunity to do something about all of this. It should start by reconsidering the reported decision to cut $368 million from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) budget for air traffic control and airport modernization.
Next, the new administration should make the case that it is time for airlines, airports, labor organizations, aircraft manufacturers and government officials to understand the stakes involved; to stop being satisfied merely with blaming one another for the problems facing the air transportation system.
That will take leadership leadership which must come from the highest levels of the government.
Nearly four years ago, a federal commission predicted gridlock in the nation's skies if nothing was done to address the air traffic control and infrastructure problems. That report was written before the specter of major labor-management problems in the airline industry loomed. The primary author of that report, Norman Mineta, is now secretary of transportation. Mr. Mineta has spent his career working with the aviation industry to find solutions to complex problems. He recently made a commitment to finding ways to build more runways more effectively. From dozens of conversations over the years, I know he is committed to working with Congress, FAA Administrator Jane Garvey and the industry to produce real air traffic control reform. And he has the credibility to work with airline managements and their labor organizations to keep them focused on finding solutions to the differences that divide them. But he needs the support of the president.
I was chairman of one of those federal commissions I mentioned earlier. I know that the time for study and commissions is over. After nearly 20 years of predicting a crisis was coming, the crisis is now here. We have run out of time for pointing fingers and trying to fix blame. The system is almost broken. The Bush administration clearly has a plan for attacking priority issues for this country. The nation has been informed of one a week since Jan. 20 (education, faith-based initiatives and tax cuts). Given the condition of the air transportation system, this issue certainly should be given priority attention by the new administration. Most travelers would agree that fixing the air transportation system should be in the top 10 of national priorities that Mr. Bush and his team address over the next few weeks.

Former Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles was chairman of the 1993 National Commission to Ensure a Strong Competitive Airline Industry.


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