Bush calls for solutions to flight delays

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Responding to growing complaints about poor airline service, President Bush told his transportation secretary yesterday to find solutions by the year's end.

"Endless hours sitting in a airplane on a runway, and there's no communication between the pilot and the airport, is just not right," he said.

In an Oval Office meeting, Bush told Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters and acting Federal Aviation Administrator Bobby Sturgell to report back to him this year about what steps are being taken to reduce delays and ensure fair treatment of delayed passengers.

"We've got a problem," Bush said. "We understand there's a problem. And we're going to address the problem."

He also urged Congress to pass legislation to modernize the FAA, for which funding authorization expires tomorrow. Lawmakers are still wrangling over how to raise taxes to pay for a substantial upgrading of the air traffic control system.

At a briefing, Peters said she is moving "immediately" to improve the department's complaint system and to update rules involving compensation for passengers involuntarily bumped from an oversold flight.

Currently, passengers get $200 in compensation. "We have proposed moving that up to approximately $624," she said.

Peters also said she is asking airlines to develop a plan to improve scheduling at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, one of the nation's busiest. If they fail to find a solution, her department will issue a scheduling reduction order, she said.

Peters said one of the options being considered for the New York area is congestion pricing, a system under which airports could charge more for flight operations during peak times.

In a statement on Bush's announcement, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc. said, "We applaud these efforts as we agree that action is needed to prevent a repeat of last summer's unacceptable delays and passenger inconvenience."

But earlier in the day at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on delays, airline executives condemned any approach involving congestion pricing.

Congestion pricing "will do nothing more than reduce service to small communities, reduce job growth and raise fares for commercial passengers," said Zane Rowe, senior vice president of Continental Airlines Inc.

Rep. James L. Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who chairs the House Transportation Committee, agreed in a statement that congestion fees "would ultimately be paid by passengers, and could raise the cost of travel substantially."

Smaller communities typically want airlines to fly smaller planes that go more places. But to cope with congestion pricing, airlines might become more inclined to use bigger planes that fly less frequently, industry analysts say.

Joe Kolshak, Delta's executive vice president of operations, said finding the "real solution" involves modernizing air traffic control systems.

"Delays and congestion are our enemies," he told the Senate panel. "Delays cost our airline more than $700 million a year."

The industry's ability to voluntarily reduce congestion is somewhat limited by antitrust laws, which prohibit airline officials from meeting to coordinate schedules.

Still, several senators criticized the airlines for doing too little to fix problems within their control, such as having enough crews in place to take off in time.

In the first seven months of this year, nearly 28 percent of flights were delayed, canceled or diverted, up from 24 percent in the comparable period last year.

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