- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2001

Each of the 25 most-congested airports in the United States would need to add a 2-mile-long runway to keep pace with the expected increase in traffic in the next 10 years, aviation officials told a Senate hearing yesterday.

Lawmakers, in an effort to ease congestion, are considering a bill introduced this week to speed up the process for approving new airport construction and an exemption from antitrust laws to allow airlines to cooperate in setting their flight schedules.

"Between 1991 and 2000, only six new runways were added at the nation's largest airports," said Jeffrey Fegan, chief executive officer of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. "With the increasing number of delays occurring around the country, building only six new runways in 10 years simply will not be enough to help alleviate the congestion at our nation's airports."

The Federal Aviation Administration warned this month that the number of airline passengers in the United States would reach 1 billion by 2010, from 674 million last year. Unless airport infrastructure is expanded and improved significantly, long delays and accidents are more likely, the agency said.

Another proposal discussed at the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation aviation subcommittee hearing yesterday was higher fees on airplanes that land during peak hours. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican and chairman of the subcommittee, introduced the bill Tuesday.

The industry and government witnesses said many proposals for reducing congestion are merely stopgap measures that cannot overcome the lack of airport capacity in the United States. Among the ideas the Transportation Department has suggested are more sophisticated computers for air-traffic control and a rule change to allow pilots to take off during severe weather and use their radar to fly around it.

Mr. Fegan complained about the long process of environmental study and government review required before new runways can begin operating, including the most recent one at Dallas-Fort Worth.

"In addition to the 3 and 1/2 years it took to complete the environmental impact statement, the process was further delayed by two years due to legal challenges, another year for the runway's design process and still another two years for the construction process," Mr. Fegan said. "From beginning to end, it took DFW Airport nearly 10 years to have our seventh runway in place and operational, with the majority of this time taken up by the environmental review process."

Mrs. Hutchison's bill would order the Transportation Department to make new runways and other airport construction a top priority, then focus its resources on speeding up the approval process. The bill also would limit the ability of states to slow down runway and airport construction with long environmental review procedures. Instead, they would be required to complete their environmental reviews in the same period as federal regulators.

"In no way would this mean that environmental laws would be ignored or broken," said Mrs. Hutchison. Instead, the limits on state authority to act create a "reasonable time line," she said.

The issue that drew the most opposition from industry representatives was the idea of congestion pricing, or charging higher landing fees during the busiest times of the day.

Although congestion pricing is not in Mrs. Hutchison's bill, Congress is considering it. Proponents of the idea, such as Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, say it would force airlines to space out their flights throughout the day, rather than bunching them up around peak hours.

Deborah McElroy, Regional Airline Association president, warned that it would be unfair to small and medium-size communities. Higher landing fees would be passed on to consumers with higher fares, she said.

"Airlines serving smaller communities with regional aircraft are far less likely to have the passenger base to absorb higher fees consequent to congestion pricing," she said. "Ultimately, such a pricing mechanism could lead to reduction or elimination of air service if increased fares result in significantly decreased traffic."

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