Cleared for takeoff?

June 15, 2007

The summer travel season is upon us and the skies have never been less friendly - or more overcrowded. The air transportation system is stretched thin, and federal authorities estimate that air traffic will increase from a record 750 million passengers per year today to more than 1 billion by 2015. Airport delays are the worst in history - last year, about one-quarter of planes arrived late at the nation's busiest airports - and are getting worse.

Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration believe the only hope for relief (aside from the customary expansions of airports and runways) is a complete overhaul of the nation's air traffic control network, which still wheezes by on 1960s technology. A new and more precise air traffic control system would rely more heavily on satellite-based navigation and computer networks.

The proposed Next Generation Air Transportation System is not without controversy - many of its specifics have not been resolved. But the most daunting challenge may be its cost - as much as $40 billion in the long term. To meet that enormous price tag, Congress is considering a financial overhaul of its own, one that would impose new and significant fees on commercial and general aviation. That has generated a veritable war between the big airlines and general aviators (the operators who aren't commercial passenger carriers). The Bush administration, with the support of the airlines, has proposed replacing the current fee structure, which relies heavily on fuel taxes and per-ticket charges, with one that would shift more of the cost onto these small operators.

Both sides offer a fairness argument. The airlines say the current system forces their passengers to pay for most of the FAA's costs. The result, they claim, is that coach passengers are subsidizing the CEOs flying in corporate jets. Small operators say fuel taxes are the fairest way to go because they reflect actual flying time, and these operators blame the big carriers for generating most of the traffic that has bogged down traffic control.

The battle over fees can't be allowed to delay these efforts toward modernization. The threat of a veritable gridlock in the skies is too great. Satellite-enhanced controls can also make flying safer - airplane navigation systems will have far more information about the conditions and traffic nearby.

Congress needs to move quickly this summer to approve an equitable user-fee-based financing plan that will generate enough money to pay for the nation's air traffic control system and spread that cost fairly. The reforms couldn't happen soon enough to ensure a pleasant trip this summer, but at least they would offer hope that the air passenger's life might someday get better.

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