How a High-Flying Economy Jams the Jets

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Airline executives, airport officials, labor unions and Department of Transportation officials parted company Monday after a four-way summit aimed at finding ways to ease the flight delays that have plagued the industry. The exiting participants sounded like they'd just come out of Camp David: No progress, lots of good intentions.

"The greatest accomplishment of today's meeting is this: that we have stated our shared commitment and expressed our renewed effort — all of the participants here — to improve our service to the American people," declared Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater.

"The thing I found for myself that's different from anything I have ever experienced is a commitment to really pay attention to this issue," gushed David Z. Plavin, the president of the Airports Council International, a trade association representing major airport operators.

Clearly, the four sides have been blaming each other for everything, and need to get together more often. The summit did produce dozens of initiatives, which called for some quick fractional measures and some sweeping long-term plans but few in between — and none that are likely to change the average flying experience anytime soon. "Everything is a tweak," said Michael P. McNally, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, after the meeting. "We are just trying to add a few percentage points to a system that is pretty much maxed out."

What's maxing it out is a record number of air travelers, spurred to fly more by economic high times and low fares — and the current air traffic control system simply isn't up to handling this volume of traffic. Long-term plans include a gradual overhaul of the airspace around "choke points" like New York, Boston and Cleveland, which could take years; more immediate measures include finding ways to speed up labor negotiations.

Initiatives were announced. Task forces were assigned. Business cards were exchanged. And a few unlucky air travelers probably even got their hopes up. But there's only one surefire short-term way to reduce overloading of the outdated system, and that's by reducing demand. And that means either raising prices (one of the summit proposals is to make it more expensive to fly at popular times) or for the economy to take a bit of a nosedive. Memo to Alan Greenspan...