FAA takes new steps to ease air traffic

Airlines agree to accept more brief delays to help open up congested skies

March 25, 2004|By Jon Hilkevitch | Jon Hilkevitch,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

HERNDON, Va. - Like priority lanes on highways, special expressways in the sky are being created this spring to route planes around crowded airspace and severe weather to reduce flight delays, the Federal Aviation Administration announced yesterday.

The plan aims at reducing long delays as air travel is expected to rebound this summer to levels last seen before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

To open up paths in congested skies, the airlines have agreed to accept more brief delays and to reroute flights to keep the airways running as smoothly as possible, said FAA Administrator Marion Blakey.

"It's not just a question of redistributing the pain; it's lessening the pain for everyone," Blakey said at the agency's command center outside Washington.

But Blakey cautioned that the new measures, which require the FAA and the airlines to go further than ever in taking a systemwide approach when problems arise, represent only part of the solution, along with implementing new technology and building more runways at airports that have become choke points.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said yesterday that he is prepared to act forcefully to correct airline overscheduling if the new changes fail to fix the problem. He spoke in front of a huge screen at the command center that showed mounting congestion near O'Hare International Airport because of passing storms.

Air traffic controllers said that having the equivalent of high-occupancy vehicle lanes in the sky would help ease congestion during peak hours as long as flight routes remained clear. But they doubted the express lanes would have much impact during bad weather.

"If we are surrounded by thunderstorms, planes are not going to fly into that weather under any circumstances. So our airspace shrinks," said Raymond Gibbons, president of the controllers union at the FAA's radar facility in Elgin, Ill., which handles aircraft in the Chicago region.

"We will still be prisoners of where the weather is," Gibbons said.

As flight delays begin to grow at an airport, aircraft will be given priority to depart - the equivalent of a longer green traffic light. Controllers, meanwhile, will implement short delays for planes taking off from other selected airports to minimize the overall impact on the system, said Jack Kies, operations director at the command center.

Kies said the changes are "more in all of our best interests than just having one airport take the hit exclusively. If we apply the concept systemically, we'll get our paybacks."

The express lanes are among several new air traffic tools toward off summer-travel gridlock.

Blakey also said the FAA is counting on airlines to make decisions about cancellations and rerouting aircraft more quickly when bad weather is forecast.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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