- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2004

The Bush administration yesterday announced a plan to ease growing air traffic congestion and flight delays by tripling the nation’s civil aviation capacity in the next 15 to 20 years.

“Unless we act now, our leadership is in jeopardy and we could be facing gridlock in our national airspace,” Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said.

Although he gave few details, Mr. Mineta said increased aviation capacity would come from a combination of more runways, more control towers, better radar systems and improved global positioning satellite systems.

Much of the program would be funded from the Federal Aviation Administration’s annual budget, though Mr. Mineta gave no cost estimate.

“The good news is that the passengers are coming back,” Mr. Mineta said about the increase in airline business since the September 11 attacks. “The bad news is that our system is again beginning to show signs of stress.”

The number of miles traveled by commercial airlines in the United States increased from 119 billion in the last quarter of 2002 to 123.1 billion in the third quarter of 2003, the last date for which the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics has reported data.

Late departures increased from 643,919 in 2002 to 736,587 in 2003, although the percentage of on-time arrivals remained about the same at just over 82 percent.

Mr. Mineta mentioned Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport as an example of an airport whose capacity limits hurt airline service.

Last week, the nation’s two largest airlines agreed to reduce the number of peak-time flights by 5 percent at O’Hare Airport to ease congestion. American Airlines and United Airlines agreed to the reductions under pressure from the FAA.

“Restricting and rationing service cannot be our long-term answer to congestion,” said Mr. Mineta, who spoke before the Aero Club of Washington at a downtown hotel.

Instead, improvements are needed to maintain aviation as an important part of the nation’s economy, he said.

“Civil aviation represents 9 percent of our domestic gross national product,” Mr. Mineta said.

European manufacturers and agencies are developing airplanes and satellite systems that create serious competition for the United States, he said.

“Our global leadership can no longer be assumed,” Mr. Mineta said.

One part of the Bush administration plan consolidates all civil aviation research and development under a new FAA division, called the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO).

“You have a lot of fragmentation today,” said Russell Chew, the FAA’s head of air traffic control services.

Currently, aviation research and development is split among agencies, such as the FAA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Defense Department.

Mr. Chew could not say which projects are most likely to produce new technologies to advance the Bush administration plan, which he called “a work in development.”

The need for tripled capacity is based on FAA and industry projections of aviation growth, said Karl Grundmann, JPDO spokesman.

One technology that would be more widely used at airports under the Bush administration plan is the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) program, a system that automates air traffic control. It has been deployed at 15 airports since June 2003.

Mr. Mineta said the Bush administration plans to install STARS at 14 additional airports this year. Other plans call for seven new runways, seven new air traffic control towers and more advanced radar systems in the next five years.

The four-year FAA reauthorization and spending legislation signed by President Bush last month would provide $3.3 billion for projects this year.

Aviation manufacturers and government contractors, such as Boeing Co. and Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp., say the plan will likely mean more business for them.

Private companies “certainly stand to benefit from a program like that, as does the flying public,” said Rachel Jackson, a development director for Lockheed Martin.

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