WASHINGTON -- Bill Cotton, a United Airlines captain who flies Boeing 757 and 767 passenger jets between Chicago and San Francisco, does not usually think much of flying over Dubuque, Iowa, as prescribed by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Instead, he often requests permission to fly the "great circle" route, a curved line that is the shortest distance between points on the globe. Sometimes, to take advantage of tail winds or avoid head winds, he flies south, over New Mexico, Utah and Nevada, or north over Wyoming and Idaho.
A growing number of pilots are charting their own courses rather than following the FAA routes, saving money, time and fuel through a program that the agency plans to expand.
Such flexibility is part of the Department of Transportation's effort to be what Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena calls customer-friendly -- in this case helping to serve the airlines -- by enlisting the advice of commercial pilots and giving them as much leeway as possible.
Under the program, pilots enjoy the same route-setting privileges they were allowed before striking air traffic controllers were dismissed by President Ronald Reagan in August 1981. The dismissals caused a shortage of controllers that led the FAA to force pilots to follow the agency's routes in an effort to relieve the controllers' workloads.
Before the strike, "we had an informal program where we approved requests for different routes," said Richard Cox, the FAA's deputy director of the Office of Air Traffic System Management.
The National Route Program currently allows pilots of flights of at least 1,500 nautical miles flown at 37,000 feet or above to request routes that they consider more direct and efficient than those required by the FAA.
Only 75,000 of the more than 6 million flights annually meet the current criteria. The FAA will next look at the 375,000 annual flights of 1,001 to 1,500 miles, and then the 2.3 million flights of 500 to 1,000 miles. The 3.5 million flights of less than 500 miles are considered too short to benefit from the program.
Begun on an experimental basis in 1990, the program has steadily grown. Last year, the FAA approved 22,440 of 33,000 pilot requests. In the first three months of this year, the program increased by more than 50 percent, and the agency approved 6,465 of 9,416 requests, compared with 3,904 of 6,234 requests during the first three months of last year.
Prodded by the airlines, the agency plans a significant expansion of the program.
"As soon as we see that we can expand it without creating an adverse workload, we're going to expand it by lowering the altitude and shortening the length requirements," Mr. Cox said.
As for the airlines, "We love it," said Jack Ryan, vice president for air traffic management of the Air Transport Association, which represents the leading airlines. "We always wanted it to be expanded. We think this program is already saving $9 million to $10 million a year."
Besides taking a great circle path, pilots could go as far north as South Dakota or as far south as Texas to take advantage of winds, Mr. Cotton said.