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House hearing sheds more light on airline delays

House hearing sheds more light on airline delays

By Warren D. Morningstar

Even the White House blames the airlines

The White House and the Department of Transportation announced Sept. 27 that they were taking "new steps" to tackle "aviation congestion and delays" in New York and across the nation. But there's less there than meets the eye, according to House transportation leaders.

"The administration's proposal contains a good deal of talking and planning, but little action to address the delay problem and help consumers in the short term," said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn).

"While the airlines have consistently tried to blame general aviation for their delay problems, the White House did finally acknowledge that airlines themselves were, in fact, a significant factor," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. The administration's fact sheet said that the Department of Transportation has started a process to "help the busiest airports adopt new policies to efficiently address chronic airline over-scheduling, which leads to long lines and delays on the tarmac."


The responsibility for airline delays was laid directly at the feet of the airlines during a House of Representatives hearing on Sept. 26.

"The reason for delays are many, and clearly weather, particularly summer storms, are a major factor," said Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee. "But there is also evidence to suggest that operational, technological, and economic trends and choices within the airline industry are factors."

So, once again, it's not general aviation's fault.

Costello said that while delays have increased, system-wide operations have decreased by 11 percent since 2000. "The decline in total operations has been driven largely by a 17-percent decline in general aviation operations, contrary to what the airlines would have us believe," said Costello.

An expert from the Mitre Corp. (which advises the FAA on air traffic control) put the blame on scheduling. "The answer to the question of why operations are down and delays are up appears to be that traffic levels have increased at the most popular [airline] hubs, which have little spare capacity, and have decreased at less popular hubs, which have more spare capacity," said Dr. Agam N. Sinha, Mitre Corp. senior vice president, at the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing.

"Scheduling during peak hours contributes to delays at the busy airports even in good weather," said Pat Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "The evidence indicates there is no impact of general aviation or business jets on the congestion and delay problems at JFK."

Turning to the nation's most delay-plagued airport, New York's LaGuardia, Forrey noted that the airport can launch 40 aircraft an hour during optimal conditions. Yet during one afternoon rush period, the airlines scheduled more departures than the airport could handle, creating a backlog of delayed flights.

And NextGen — air traffic control modernization — will not provide any short-term relief for frustrated airline passengers. "We all agree that NextGen needs to happen," said Costello, "that's why in the House bill (H.R.2881) we provided $1 billion more than the administration accelerate NextGen.

"But I don't want to build false expectations with the traveling public that the FAA can go buy something off the shelf and it's going to help us by the holiday season," Costello said. "NextGen is a long-term solution."

Said Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.), "In trying to sell its extremely controversial financing proposal, for which there is no consensus, I believe that this administration has oversold its NextGen plan to the American public."

September 27, 2007

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