- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

Washington Dulles International Airport is among the airports most likely to experience delays this summer as passenger numbers return to pre-September 11 levels, according to government witnesses at a congressional hearing yesterday.

Dulles is the nation’s 24th-largest airport but “plays a key role” in airline traffic between Northern and Southern states, said Marion Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation held a hearing to determine what the government can do to avoid excessive delays for airlines and their passengers.

Any delays for passengers at Dulles are likely to be more acute because one runway is closed for repairs and a new airline, Independence Air, begins operating at the airport June 16 with 300 daily flights, Mrs. Blakey said.

The FAA has realigned approach and takeoff routes for airplanes and consolidated air traffic controllers in a new facility to reduce delays at Dulles, FAA officials said.

Officials from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages Dulles Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, said they have gotten agreements from the Transportation Security Administration to adequately staff screening checkpoints to avoid delays this summer.

“It’s going to be a busy summer at Dulles,” said Tara Hamilton, airports authority spokeswoman. “I think we all agree on that.”

TSA officials said any delays for passengers are likely to be less severe at Reagan Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Airport. BWI is the nation’s 37th-largest airport and Reagan Airport is 49th.

“Dulles is the challenge,” said Chris Rhatigan, TSA spokeswoman.

Neither the airports authority nor TSA officials would estimate how much longer delays might be this summer at any of the area’s airports.

The Air Transport Association said airlines will carry 65 million passengers this summer, a 12 percent increase over last year.

The FAA has started a wireless service for electronic handheld devices, designed to inform airline passengers about flying conditions and whether their flights are on time, Mrs. Blakey said. The Fly FAA Wireless program can be downloaded to personal digital assistants or cell phones from the FAA Web site.

In addition, United Airlines and American Airlines agreed to an FAA request to slightly reduce their flights at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, the world’s busiest, to avoid backing up flights nationwide.

Several congressmen expressed doubt about whether the FAA and TSA were adapting quickly enough to demands on the airline system.

“When faced with adverse conditions, FAA slows down the entire system through the use of ground stops and reduced traffic flows to ensure safety,” said Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican. “These steps often create backups and gridlock from which it takes the system hours to recover.”

He also accused the TSA bureaucracy of acting too slowly to fill vacancies as high as 20 percent at Los Angeles International Airport and other airports.

“Too often the result is long screening checkpoint lines,” said Mr. Mica, chairman of the subcommittee on aviation. “At Las Vegas, checkpoint delays of four hours have plagued air travelers.”

The FAA and TSA plan to rely on a public information campaign to reduce expected delays this summer at security checkpoints. It will use public service announcements, Internet ads and fliers at airports to tell passengers how they should pack and items they should avoid carrying to move through security checkpoints quickly.

In addition, when any one line gets too long, TSA screeners are supposed to direct passengers from the back of the line to other checkpoints.

“We learned a lot of hard lessons from previous peak seasons,” Stephen McHale, TSA deputy administrator, told Congress.

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