Too-crowded skies

November 20, 2007

The president of the United States is a powerful man, but even he can't control the weather. Thus, President Bush's measures to provide short-term relief to air passengers during this holiday week were no match for fog, snow and wind that were already delaying flights before tomorrow's prime travel begins.

The Bush administration plan to open military airspace on the East Coast to commercial travel during the holiday period, for example, was most welcome, but military space isn't a weather-free zone.

True passenger relief will likely only come when the president and Congress agree on legislation to overhaul the woefully outdated air traffic control system as well as some method to reduce the traffic burden at peak times in peak locations.

Ideally, the airlines will help by ending the practice of overscheduling flights to the point that passengers can't help but be delayed or bumped. Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport has a better record than most, but that's because it isn't yet booked beyond capacity.

In this record year for flight delays, there is little dispute that the air traffic control network must be modernized and made more efficient. The legislation is being held up, though, in part because of a battle between passenger airlines and general aviation over how to assess fees to pay for it.

These are complicated, difficult issues to resolve, but delay only makes matters worse. In announcing steps he can take unilaterally, such as easing runway restrictions in the bottleneck New York-New Jersey area, Mr. Bush homed in on a holiday wish shared by most Americans - to be able to travel safely, quickly and at reasonable cost.

But only when real progress is made will they have a reason to be thankful.

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