- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Federal aviation regulators yesterday made an unusual threat to cut commercial flights at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to reduce delays that are rippling through the nation’s airline system.

Marion Blakey, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, said the government would reduce flights at O’Hare, one of the nation’s busiest airports, if airlines do not do so voluntarily.

Mrs. Blakey made the threat during a meeting downtown with executives of U.S. airlines, including industry giants American Airlines and United Airlines, which control 88 percent of O’Hare flights.

O’Hare, which handles both cargo and passenger traffic, has more takeoffs and landings each year than any other airport in the world. Anywhere travelers fly in the United States, their chances of arriving on time can be affected by flight problems at O’Hare.

“If we need to, we’ll issue an order requiring the most efficient schedule that reflects our best judgment, which might not be yours,” Mrs. Blakey told the airline executives.

An improving economy is resulting in more passengers, but a $2.9 billion expansion project at O’Hare that includes a slow pace for adding runways is turning the airport into a bottleneck, Transportation Department officials said.

The airport sometimes is scheduled to handle as many as 100 flights per hour, although it has the capacity to handle no more than 86.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said O’Hare set a record in May for the most delays — 14,500 in one month. Many of them were weather-related. Any flight at least 15 minutes late is classified as delayed.

“We cannot and we will not allow this critical hub to become a choking point that stalls the economy and drives passengers away,” Mr. Mineta said.

As airline traffic returns to pre-September 11 levels, O’Hare is handling about 170 more flights daily than last year. Nearly 58,600 delays were reported at the airport in the first half of this year, which is more than the total in any of the past three years.

Many planes pass through Chicago’s airspace because of its central location. Sometimes the sky over Chicago gets so crowded that air traffic controllers have to delay flights that land elsewhere.

When O’Hare gets jammed, controllers delay takeoffs at other airports to give O’Hare time to clear out its backlog.

Also, unusual weather patterns this year have caused a high number of severe thunderstorms in some of the country’s most congested areas — from Chicago east through the Upper Midwest, the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

Yesterday, thunderstorms en route to Chicago caused average arrival delays of 51 minutes.

Airlines already have tried to ease congestion at O’Hare by mutual agreement.

American and United airlines cut their peak-hour flights by 7 percent in March and June — but other airlines filled in the slots by increasing the number of their flights.

Among them is Independence Air, the new low-fare carrier based at Washington Dulles International Airport, which has 12 daily flights from Dulles to O’Hare.

The meeting yesterday at FAA headquarters was unusual in its appeal for voluntary compliance from airlines, said FAA spokesman William Shumann.

“There’s never been one like this,” Mr. Shumann said.

The FAA has considered auctioning takeoff and landing times to airlines at the busiest airports, such as O’Hare, Transportation Department officials said.

“It’s just something we’re interested in learning more about,” said Brian Turmail, Transportation Department spokesman.

He said every minute of delay costs an airline $30. Airlines have logged more than 42 million minutes of delays in the United States this year.

Local airports, as well as those nationwide, can be affected by problems at O’Hare.

Jonathan Dean, spokesman at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, said the delays occasionally have backed up BWI carriers.

“It has not been a critical issue here at BWI,” he said.

Other airports with congestion problems are New York’s LaGuardia Airport and Newark’s Liberty Airport in New Jersey.

• This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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