We are on final approach to air gridlock. The relentless growth in air travel has far outstripped the capacity of U.S. airports--there's too much aluminum and not enough concrete. And the air-traffic-control system that went into service 60 years ago still resembles the original, right down to the inefficient positioning of radar beacons. Yet in the past five years, commercial air traffic has increased 27%, to 660 million passenger trips annually. In the next decade, that number is expected to reach 1 billion.
Two years ago, threatened with a clampdown by an angry Congress, airlines promised to improve their customer service and reliability. Yet within the next few weeks, the Transportation Department's inspector general is expected to report that the airlines have failed to live up to all their pledges. Even though their scheduling patterns and booming growth contribute to the mess, it's not all the airlines' fault. Bigger solutions are needed. Next month the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will convene a national summit to ask what can be done to solve the crisis. Right now, we offer five proposals of our own:
While there are thousands of airports across the U.S., more than 70% of commercial traffic is concentrated at the 28 largest facilities, where airlines are apt to employ their "hub-and-spoke" systems. That is where the vast majority of delays occur. Yet building a new runway is such a complex and costly process that adding just a strip of tarmac can take decades because of local opposition of many kinds--political, economic, environmental. Nobody really wants a jetport in the backyard. Seattle-Tacoma international airport got local approval for a new runway in 1993, but it still hasn't broken ground. And when it does, the new strip will take four years to complete. Memphis international airport needed 10 years to get its new runway approved and an additional six to actually finish it. Hub airports should get emergency treatment. "The single greatest way to ease congestion in the entire nation would be to build a third runway at O'Hare," says a former high-ranking Transportation Department official. "Tomorrow."
Congress needs to streamline the federal approval process, take some authority out of the hands of local and state politicians, and get a major new runway built at every large airport that can physically accommodate it. Big airlines often try to block these projects in order to keep out competitors. Says Allan McArtor, former head of the FAA and CEO of troubled start-up Legend Airlines: "The biggest deterrent to new airport planning is the resistance and political clout of major carriers. Dominant airlines must stop fighting new airport development if the entire system is going to improve." The FAA is on the right track in attempting to transform nearly two dozen former military airfields like El Toro in California and Homestead A.F.B. in Florida into commercial airports, but the process needs a jump-start.
The FAA's old theology guaranteed all comers "open access" to the air-control system. It's time to shoot that dogma. The new philosophy should be strictly capitalistic: if you want it badly enough, pay for it. In congressional testimony last fall, John Carr, head of the air-traffic controllers' union, pointed out that at Dallas-Fort Worth airport, where the departure rate is 11 aircraft in a five-minute period, airlines were scheduling 16 takeoffs at the very same time. LaGuardia Airport in New York City has become Exhibit A of airline excess. Although the facility can accommodate 75 flights an hour, at times there are more than 100 planes scheduled. Since airlines evidently cannot restrain themselves from overscheduling, demand could be rationed by the size of the fee that an airline pays an airport for each takeoff or landing. A slot at 5 p.m. at O'Hare should cost more than one at 10 p.m.
While we're on the subject of imposing economic reality, let's take a whack at the untouchables, or the "general aviation" folks. G.A. uses more than half of airport-tower services and represents 20% of overall traffic-control activity, but it pays just 3% of the costs. When it starts to infringe on pressure points--as it did last summer in the crowded New York airspace--it can back up thousands of passengers. It should get out of the way, or at least pitch in more for the services.
Get a Bobby Knight
Congress and a succession of Presidents have punted on critical aviation issues for years. To make up for the lack of leadership, the air-travel system could use a dictator. Someone not unlike the perpetually inflamed former Indiana basketball coach could be installed in a newly created post of FAA chief operating officer to break through the institutional gridlock--from the Environmental Protection Agency (which evaluates environmental impact) to the Department of Transportation (which approves new airlines and routes). The COO has to behave like an air czar. "Somebody needs to knock some heads," says Bob Francis, a former FAA official who was vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.