Air Transport World

Air traffic delays staging a comeback.

Congestion of air traffic at major U.S. airports, and accompanying delays, this summer has become a point of contention between the airlines and FAA, with each assigning a lion's share of the blame to the other. Airlines claim FAA's rebuilding of the air traffic control system has fallen behind schedule, and on top of that, the agency is reluctant to "test" the capacity of the existing system, creating artificial delays that need not occur.

FAA, while admitting that its staffing of the ATC system has not recovered from the August 1981 strike of PATCO, maintains that no staffing levels or technology will eradicate delays when airlines schedule 80 flights where only 40 can fit.

Interested players in this scene are the air traffic controllers, who claim they are being overworked and ignored. Although continuing with the cooperative mood of working within the system that has prevailed since the PATCO walkout, the controllers are forming a new union so their grievances may be heard and acted on in time to forestall the re-emgerence of the hostility that eventually fatally poisened FAA/PATCO relations.

Meanwhile, some are looking further ahead than next week's flight schedule or controller staffing level and are finding that the spectre of strangling congestion in the near future is even more daunting.

While the current understaffing and restrictive operation of the ATC system will be corrected in the next year or so, this will do little to postpone the capacity crunch. And, although an FAA/industry "think tank" is meeting to discuss the airline schedule bunching problem, this also has the appearance of a situation not easily solved.

Deregulation--which at times seems to be blamed for everything from oil leaks in engines to flood tides in low-lying areas--is both threatened by and partially the cause of this congestion. The cause: Were it not for the heightened competition, proliferation of carriers and the new popularity of hub complexing it would be easier to solve at least some of the scheduling hassles, and the number of operations would increase in a relatively ordered manner. The threat: In a worst case situation the government would be forced to restrict access to major airports, sharply reducing a new entrant's freedom of market entry or an incumbent's ability to fully compete, both essential in the free market environment required for deregulation to fulfill its theoretical promise.

Congestion began to increase early this summer as airlines added more flights in response to strong consumer demand in a rebounding economy and FAA's loosening of some of the traffic restraints remaining from the post-PATCO rebuilding period. …

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