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Bush frees airspace for holiday travel

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- With a holiday travel crush looming, President Bush announced yesterday that commercial jets will be allowed to fly in restricted East Coast military airspace during the busiest days around Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The move will add two flight routes to the dozen or so along the Eastern seaboard and help get planes out of the crowded New York metropolitan area - the source of many of the nation's air traffic jams - more quickly, transportation officials said.

While the restricted space is frequently available to commercial flights during bad weather, this marks the first time that authorities have cleared its use in advance.

The improvements will offer little relief, however, if weather conditions send the fragile air traffic system into a tailspin. And they won't help passengers if they get stuck on planes stranded on tarmacs.

"If the weather overtop this military airspace is bad, then no one's going to fly over it," said John Dunkerly, an air traffic controller at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. "It may just be paying lip service to the flying public."

Yesterday's announcement comes as travelers brace for a hectic Thanksgiving season. The Air Transport Association, a trade organization for airlines, projects a 4 percent increase in passengers next week compared with a year ago, with an average of 2.3 million passengers daily on planes that are 90 percent full.

Bush said he hoped a series of new "preliminary" proposals would "help address the epidemic of aviation delays" that flare up at this time of the year.

"These problems that we've been discussing are clear to anybody who has been traveling," Bush said. "We can do better. We can have an aviation system that is improved."

But a permanent fix, the president said, would require congressional action and money to modernize the air traffic control system and impose a congestion pricing system to reduce demand at the busiest airports.

The immediate moves are "not going to hurt anything, so you welcome it," said Darryl Jenkins, an independent airline consultant based in Northern Virginia. "But it takes you no closer to solving the long-term problems in capacity than we have been facing for the past 25 or 30 years."

The Federal Aviation Administration has been negotiating with airlines and airports in the New York region to limit flights and increase prices so that fewer travelers are flying.

"Three-quarters of the flight delays [nationally] are because the plane went into, out of or through the New York airspace," said Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters.

But the effort has faced resistance. The governors of New York and New Jersey oppose an FAA suggestion to limit flights at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport.

The idea "would be a crippling blow for our region's passengers, our aviation industry and our economy," Democratic Govs. Eliot Spitzer of New York and Jon Corzine of New Jersey said in a letter to federal officials.

While delays in and around New York send ripples across the country, Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport fares better than most.

The airport operates below capacity, and its dominant carrier, Southwest Airlines, has plenty of gate space for its planes.

BWI Marshall has the highest on-time rate for departures and arrivals among the eight airports in the Northeast region - a distinction earned in part because Southwest does not use the New York region's main airports, JFK, LaGuardia and Newark, said airline spokeswoman Marilee McInnis.

The administration's proposals also provide no relief for one of the most vexing problems facing air travelers: confining and frustrating waits on tarmacs.

The issue grew in prominence in February, when JetBlue Airways left hundreds of passengers on planes for more than six hours at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

The administration is working on new regulations limiting the amount of time a full plane could sit on the runway, but it will take months before the rules go into effect, said Peters, the transportation secretary.

"We shouldn't have a one-size-fits-all approach to this, because every airport is a little bit different," she said.

Bush also didn't address another component of flight problems: a reduced and demoralized air-traffic controller network whose members have been working without a contract for about a year and a half. There are more than 7 percent fewer air traffic controllers at work now than a year ago, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

"The controllers were already at their breaking point over the summer," said union spokesman Doug Church. "Delays are going to go up. They're not going to go down."

To help passengers get off stranded planes more quickly, airports have agreed to provide extra rolling stairways and gates during the holiday period, Peters said.

But BWI likely won't need such equipment, officials said.

Southwest, for example, has 26 available gates but typically uses only 16, said Reggie Barnes, a Southwest manager. Because of such flexibility, the airline can often unload delayed aircraft after a 90 minute wait, he said.

Bush is proposing to double fees airlines pay to passengers involuntarily bumped from flights to $400 for short delays and $800 for delays over two hours. He also wants airlines to have better contingency plans for emergency and provide more accurate data to regulators so that the time spent sitting on the ground after a planes has pushed away from the gates is included in on-time percentage calculations.

Other ideas include requiring airlines to respond to passenger complaints more quickly. But it will take months before the changes work their way through the regulatory approval process.

The president said the best solutions for easing airport congestion would be to charge higher fees for planes at peak times or to auction prime gate space to the highest bidder.

"Applying congestion pricing to the aviation industry has the potential to make today's system more predictable, more reliable, and more convenient for the travelers," Bush said.

Rep. Jerry Costello, an Illinois Democrat and head of the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee, called the president's announcement "better late than never."

Many of ideas discussed by the president are contained in legislation that has passed the House and is awaiting Senate action, Costello said in a statement.

"I am glad that the president has read our bill and endorsed key portions of it," he said.

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