Delays spur fight over air travel

June 18, 2008 8:09:55 PM PDT
The Bush administration's plan to ease nationwide flight delays through an experiment with New York airspace drew fierce resistance in Congress, with lawmakers joining airline officials predicting it will only make matters worse.The Department of Transportation came under withering criticism at a Wednesday hearing of a House Transportation subcommittee into the government's plan to combat delays by auctioning off some flight slots at New York's three major airports.

Last year, U.S. airports saw near-record delays, and the government says two out of three flights delayed 15 minutes or more were due to a backup in New York.

To fix that, the government has put a limit on how many flights can take off per hour from New York airports, and it plans to auction off some airport slots as a way to control the overwhelming demand for time and space. By auctioning slots, the government reasons, market forces will help restrain such demand and make the whole system operate more efficiently.

However, lawmakers and the airlines argued that the planned auction will impose additional costs on airlines and make a mess of day-to-day airport operations.

Edward Faberman, executive director of the Air Carrier Association of America, said the industry faces a bigger economic challenge than even that posed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and he predicted rising fuel costs would mean an additional $99 billion in expenses for the industry over the next 12 months.

"To put it bluntly, there could not be a worse time for DOT to pursue market experiments that would impose hundreds of millions of dollars in new costs on an industry in crisis," Faberman said.

"Get off this goofy, hare-brained scheme to auction off slots. It won't solve a thing," New York Sen. Charles Schumer said.

The Democratic senator plans to seek a legislative amendment that would stop the auction plan, but the bill in question has been bogged down for months due to an unrelated squabble and may not come up for a vote for months, if at all.

Lawmakers took turns excoriating the lone witness from the Bush administration, Transportation Department lawyer D.J. Gribbon.

Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar called the auction plan "repugnant" and "anathema to me."

"Policy-wise, it's wrong. What's the next step, privatizing the DOT, outsourcing it?" asked Oberstar, D-Minn.

He then sparred with Gribbon over the difference between an airport's flight capacity and a government-decreed cap on flights.

"You don't understand that, apparently," said Oberstar, who was sitting underneath a giant portrait of himself.

"Actually, sir, I do understand that," Gribbon shot back.

The tone of the two-hour hearing wasn't much different from that found at a departure gate full of delayed passengers: lots of questions, few answers and outbursts of temper.

"I have never dealt in my entire life in Congress with a more arrogant agency" than the Federal Aviation Administration, said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn.

After the hearing, Transportation Department spokesman Brian Turmail said Congress has done little for more than a year while the problems worsened.

"It is tempting to imagine how much better air travel may have been had some in Congress demonstrated the same enthusiasm 17 months ago for our proposal to improve the nation's aviation systems as they do now in criticizing measures to cut record flight delays," said Turmail.

The conflict over how to reform congested skies also reflects an odd role reversal: In the case of auctioning airport slots, Democrats are arguing for a lighter government hand while the Republican administration seeks more forceful intervention.

The lawmakers insist the proper way to address the problem is to increase capacity by hiring more air controllers and speeding the transition from a radar-based control system to a satellite-based system.

The Bush administration has already imposed hourly caps at all of the major New York City airports, which has the effect of pushing some flights from crowded mornings and afternoons into midday periods.

Industry representatives warn that such caps - particularly when combined with an auction of slots - will push out smaller, regional and low-cost carriers and lead to higher ticket prices.

Gribbon told the panel the slot auction would actually decrease costs for consumers, by making the system more efficient.