FAA wants flights at O'Hare cut

Airlines warned to reduce service or face action by agency to lessen delays

August 05, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Mixing threat and persuasion yesterday, the Federal Aviation Administration gathered dozens of executives from 15 airlines that fly into O'Hare International Airport and asked them to cut their schedules by about 5 percent to reduce delays that are so extensive that they ripple from Chicago through the whole country.

Agency officials said they had never tried negotiating landing slots among so many airlines before.

O'Hare can handle without delay 86 arrivals an hour from domestic airliners, and up to 22 in any 15-minute period, but more than 40 are scheduled to arrive between 8 a.m. and 8:14 a.m., and much of the rest of the day is also overcrowded, according to the FAA.

"The gridlock situation at O'Hare is not good for anyone," said Norman Y. Mineta, secretary of transportation. The FAA is part of his department.

Marion C. Blakey, the FAA administrator, said, "It doesn't work."

"It's a problem we share and a problem we can solve together," Blakey said to a room filled mostly with reporters; the session with the airline executives was held in private.

But, she warned, if no agreement is reached, her agency will rely on its statutory authority "to assure the efficient use of the navigable airspace" and act unilaterally.

The FAA tried negotiation last year at O'Hare with United and American, which together account for more than three-quarters of the flights. This year, the two airlines shifted some flights out of peak periods and canceled others, and O'Hare ran more smoothly for a while, but other carriers added flights and the system bogged down again.

Jeanne Medina, a spokeswoman for United, said that her airline had already cut its schedule 7.5 percent and that until O'Hare could be expanded, the solution was for others to cut their schedules, too. "We believe any cuts need to be equitable, across the board," Medina said.

Uniform cuts seem unlikely, because some new carriers, like Independence Air, based at Washington Dulles International Airport, are vowing to maintain service, and other carriers have only a handful of flights a day.

Edward P. Faberman, executive director of the Air Carrier Association of America, which represents smaller airlines, said that American and United were responsible for the near-gridlock situation and that it would be wrong for the government to use that problem to prevent others from coming in.

The FAA is on untested legal ground and is tiptoeing around antitrust rules. With help from the Justice Department, it invented a system for yesterday's meeting: After a group session, an FAA official met individually with each airline and asked how many flights it would cut.

The agency will sum up all the cuts and see if they are adequate. An agreement among the airlines themselves to cut service would be illegal collusion, officials said.

The effort at O'Hare may be a precedent for other airports. The agency is rationing access to LaGuardia in New York, with a lottery of landing slots, but is looking for an alternative. Last week, it held a meeting with airlines that was not publicly disclosed to discuss other systems, including an auction of landing rights, a concept that the airlines vehemently oppose.

The problem at LaGuardia and O'Hare is that the FAA and the airports have not been able to expand capacity fast enough to meet demand in a recovering economy and a fare war induced by financially distressed airlines.

Adding to the problem is that many carriers are retiring big jets and substituting smaller ones so that they can offer service more frequently. The result often is more planes carrying the same number of people.

According to the FAA, on-time gate arrivals at O'Hare are running at under 68 percent this year, down from better than 80 percent last year. Among delayed flights, 24 percent are by more than an hour, and nearly 9 percent are by more than two hours.

Last month, 30 percent of arrivals or departures were delayed at O'Hare.

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