- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The summer travel season looks great for airlines trying to make a buck but more dicey for their customers who want to travel quickly and easily to their destinations, said Marion Blakey, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Delays are more likely this summer than last year, and packed airplanes flying with full loads will make it difficult for passengers to re-book flights if they miss connections.

“Delays are slightly worse, but pressure is much higher,” Mrs. Blakey said in an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times yesterday.

She cautioned travelers to “fly early, take a carry-on.”

Airlines are filling an average of about 85 percent of their seats with passengers. However, the average is skewed by late-night “red-eye” flights that carry the fewest passengers, Mrs. Blakey said. Most other flights are operating with the seats close to 100 percent filled.

“It is extremely tight,” she said.

The number of passengers has increased to levels not seen since before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. About 207 million passengers are expected to ride U.S. airlines this summer, according to the Air Transport Association, an industry trade group.

Passengers who get bumped because their flights are overbooked might have long waits for other flights, Mrs. Blakey said.

“There are no backups; there’s no other flight,” she said.

Some customer-service problems will be hard for airlines to avoid because their efforts to keep their businesses afloat have forced them to try to do more with fewer routes, employees and airplanes.

Airlines have eliminated about 153,000 jobs in the past five years in a drive toward efficiency, many of them among ticket agents, flight attendants and other customer-service personnel. They also eliminated unprofitable routes and scaled back the least profitable ones.

“They’re doing what makes sense,” Mrs. Blakey said. “They’re taking out the excess capacity. The industry is getting healthier.”

Whatever happens with customer service and delays, the FAA has ensured that safety will not suffer, she said. Airlines continue to be subject to regulations with safety and operational requirements.

Industry officials say airlines are ready for a large number of summer travelers, but only if the airlines can avoid bad weather and interruptions in service.

“We expect a record summer,” said David Castelveter, Air Transport Association spokesman. “When there is weather this summer, it’s going to be a mess.”

The FAA has prepared for bad weather this summer with new regulations that allow airplanes to fly around storm cells rather than being grounded until the storms pass.

Limitations of the air-traffic-control system create a further obstacle to smooth travel, Mr. Castelveter said. He described it as outdated and stretched to its capacity.

“It’s 1950s technology,” Mr. Castelveter said. “Airlines still rely on voice control to get them from Point A to Point B. We have an enormously strained air-traffic-control system that needs to be replaced.”

Mrs. Blakey said the FAA hopes to make greater use of satellite navigation and software that optimizes flight efficiency to replace the eyes and ears of air-traffic controllers.

The agency plans to begin testing one of the new systems, called the Airspace Flow Program, next week at East Coast airports. It is designed to guide pilots along the most direct flight paths to their destinations, cutting flight times and fuel use.

A consortium of telecommunications companies this month completed installation of another technology upgrade at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. It includes 120 telecommunications services in the airport’s new 398-foot control tower to automate operations formerly performed by air-traffic controllers.

The same system has been installed in Palm Beach, Fla.; Denver; Minneapolis; and Albuquerque, N.M.

FAA officials admit that the current air-traffic-control system is outdated but say their budget restricts their ability to add the satellite navigation systems they seek.

“We’re in the 21st century, and you can’t hide the fact that we don’t have a 21st-century system,” said Geoff Basye, FAA spokesman.

The FAA is operating with a $14.1 billion federal subsidy this fiscal year, about 60 percent of it consumed by labor costs.

The FAA has reached an impasse in its labor contract negotiations with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union for the nation’s air-traffic controllers.

The FAA on April 5 asked Congress to intervene in the dispute but still is awaiting legislative action. The labor contract expired in September.

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