`Express lanes' in sky may ease air traffic

FAA to create short delays at some airports to avoid lengthier ones at others

March 25, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HERNDON, Va. - To reduce air traffic delays this summer, the Federal Aviation Administration will order short delays at some airports to avoid longer ones at others, officials announced yesterday.

The agency has dropped its long-standing adherence to a "first-come, first-served" system of traffic management, officials said, hoping that spreading out the delays will reduce the total minutes of delays. Air traffic controllers at the agency's command center in Herndon will act like police officers holding up traffic on a side street to clear out a jam on an avenue, establishing what Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta called "express lanes in our skies."

For example, Jack Kies, the aviation agency's director of system operations, said that if a backup of airplanes at La Guardia Airport was threatening a chain reaction of delays, the agency might delay a takeoff from Syracuse to leave more space in the skies for planes leaving La Guardia. A delay at 8 a.m. at La Guardia would cause a backup that would not be cleared until after 11 a.m., Kies said, but a single plane held on the ground in Syracuse for a few minutes would probably not cause any other delays.

The plan was agreed to at a series of meetings this month with representatives of the major airlines, regional carriers, private plane owners, corporate jet operators, pilots unions and the Defense Department, officials said. The airlines "agreed to accept the philosophical bias of sharing the pain," Kies said.

But the idea is to cut total delays. FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said, "This is not just a system of redistributing the pain; it's lessening the pain."

The agency will begin creating short delays at some airports when the delays at congested places are projected to reach 90 minutes, Mineta said.

The airlines that operate hub-and-spoke systems from big airports are eager to reduce delays, but a strategy that spreads delays among airports could hurt another carrier, Southwest Airlines. Southwest fled Denver and San Francisco to avoid routine delays. The airline's success depends on multiple flights for each plane every day, a strategy that requires more precise timing.

A spokesman for Southwest, Ed Stewart, said that his airline had sent a representative to the discussions but was not aware of any final decision. "We want to avoid anything that might produce substantial delays," Stewart said.

The "first-come, first-served" system, which the new plan replaces in part, creates resentment when airlines flying planes with hundreds of passengers find themselves waiting in line to take off behind corporate jets with three or four people.

The aviation officials spoke at a briefing for reporters. In the background were huge screens showing air traffic around the continental United States, which Blakey said was "roaring back" to the levels before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The new system, which took effect Monday, reflects a gradual trend in air traffic control toward greater cooperation among the parties.

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