- The Washington Times - Friday, May 11, 2001

Airlines would be allowed to coordinate their flight schedules at congested airports without violating antitrust laws under a bill approved yesterday by a House subcommittee.
The goal of the legislation is to reduce flight delays caused by different airlines booking too many flights around peak flying times.
Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's aviation subcommittee admitted the Airline Delay Reduction Act is intended as a stopgap solution. A vote on the bill has not yet been scheduled by Congress.
"Although not a silver bullet solution to the delays plaguing our national airspace system, this bill will provide an immediate tool for the airlines to use in the short-term to redistribute operations at congested facilities until other airspace and airport capacity improvements are in place," said Rep. James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat, and co-sponsor of the bill.
Approval by the subcommittee comes as airlines prepare for their peak summer travel season. Last year, airline delays rose 20 percent to more than 450,000, the most since 1990, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The economic downturn of recent months is expected to cut the number of passengers and take some pressure off airlines, but not completely eliminate delays.
Airlines have been beefing up their reserve airplane fleet and tinkering with air-traffic-control systems to prepare for the summer season. They told Congress the antitrust exemption in the Airline Delay Reduction Act could help avoid bunching up of flights at critical times and during bad weather.
"This is a great first step," said Michael Wascom, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the trade association for major airlines. "But it's more of a short-term measure that only advances the ball to a limited degree."
Rep. William O. Lipinski, Illinois Democrat, agreed. "Obviously, there is much more that needs to be done in the long term, such as building new runway capacity, modernizing the air-traffic-control system and redesigning the airspace," he said. "However, these things take time and something needs to be done immediately to ensure that gridlock does not destroy the reliability and efficiency of our national aviation system."
The bill includes limitations on antitrust immunity. The Transportation Department would have to approve any meetings between airlines as well as any agreements they reach. The meetings would be open to the public. Airlines would be prohibited from discussing fares, rates, charges, in-flight services and pairing of city schedules. The immunity would expire Sept. 30, 2003.
The House subcommittee approved the bill the same day the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's aviation subcommittee considered a similar antitrust immunity during a hearing at which government and industry witnesses testified.
FAA's efforts to expand the nation's air-traffic-control system are not keeping up with its goals and are contributing to airline delays, one government witness warned.
The $12 billion air-traffic-control expansion program started in 1981 has suffered huge cost overruns and problems in technology development, said Gerald Dillingham, the General Accounting Office's director of physical infrastructure issues. Through 2005, the program is expected to cost $44 billion.
"Although air traffic has greatly increased, the improvements expected from this modernization program have fallen short," Mr. Dillingham said. "While FAA has installed new equipment to provide the necessary platform for fielding modern technologies to improve efficiency, this effort has experienced cost, schedule and performance problems."
Other witnesses updated the Senate aviation subcommittee on the status of upgrades. Mr. Dillingham warned that improvements in integrating new technologies, along with runway additions, are needed quickly to avoid air-traffic gridlock.
Current obstacles include a tendency of groups developing new technologies to work in isolation, rather than coordinating efforts under FAA leadership, Mr. Dillingham said.
He also said that retirements in the next decade could cause a shortage of trained personnel.
"It is generally agreed that by 2010, at least 40 percent of the current controller work force will be eligible to retire," Mr. Dillingham said.


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