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Bush Announces Plan to Reduce Air Travel Delays

November 15, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: We begin with the problem of congestion. Domestic airlines are expected to fly some 27 million passengers in the 12-day stretch around Thanksgiving, with planes about 90 percent full. This comes near the end of a year that has seen record lows in on-time performance by airlines.

The president’s proposals today were aimed at both short- and long-term fixes. For the immediate future, they include: opening up new express lanes of airspace during Thanksgiving week; and imposing a holiday moratorium on non-essential maintenance work at airports.

For the long haul, he proposed: doubling the compensation passengers receive when they’re bumped off overbooked flights; and so-called congestion pricing to reduce problems on the busiest routes.

Here to discuss all this is David Field, who follows the industry closely. He’s the U.S. editor of Airline Business magazine.

Why don’t we look at some of the short-term measures first, and particularly this one about opening up military space? How would that work, and why do it?

DAVID FIELD, U.S. Editor, Airline Business Magazine: This is actually going to have some effect in the short term. If you look at an air traffic control map of the East Coast, you’ll see big purple boxes and purple circles all up and down the East Coast. And those are places where airliners can’t fly unless they get specific permission from the DOD, from the Defense Department.

And the way it’s done now is the FAA or the airline has to approach the DOD and say, “We want to fly at 3:12 p.m. over MOA-974, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And the military, being the military, has a wonderful habit of saying, “No.”

Now, with the president stepping in — and it’s extraordinary for a president to step in and work on this level of detail — with the president stepping in, you’re going to have these areas open over the next five days, which means a lot more room, particularly if you have bad weather.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bad weather is what I was going to ask, yes.

DAVID FIELD: Yes. And if you need to space planes farther apart, this gives you more room. If you want to stack planes up, it gives you more vertical room.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, things like the definition of on-time departures, he talked about, or about cancellation numbers, now these are things that have been talked about before. What’s the problem? And what’s he proposing here?

DAVID FIELD: Right now, if a flight’s cancelled, it doesn’t count against the airline as a delayed flight. It just goes out of the list. So an airline could have canceled 2 percent or 3 percent of its flights and claimed a much better on-time record than is the reality. They would, under the proposal, be counted as delayed flights.

Similarly, he’s seeking a uniform definition of departure. Each airline now defines it the way they want, so some airlines say it’s when we close the doors; some airlines say it’s when we let the parking brake go. And all of those leave a big loophole for sitting on the runway between the gate and the actual time you take off.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the compensation when you’re bumped, of course, a big issue for a lot of people. And, again, it’s been out there for a long time.

DAVID FIELD: It’s been out there for a long time, but this will push it through. It has to go through the regulatory process, but you’re talking about basically going from $400 to $800 for people who are involuntarily bumped.

As frequent flyers know, a lot of people like to get bumped, because then they can get a certificate for a free round trip, or 10,000 extra frequent flier miles, or Starbucks coffee or whatever. This is for people who really don’t want to get bumped and demand compensation.

JEFFREY BROWN: So in what ways — before we get to some of the longer-term things here — in what ways can any of this have an immediate effect for people who are going to fly next week?

DAVID FIELD: I think the military airspace is really the only thing that’s going to have an immediate affect. Certainly, the ban on unnecessary FAA and airport rehab, maintenance, repair, and so on may help ease congestion at some of the big airports.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, longer term, he talked about something that’s called congestion pricing. Now, this has been around in economics and thinking about airport and airline policy for a long time. How much of it has come into play? Well, explain what it is first.

DAVID FIELD: If I want to land at La Guardia airport at 4:00 p.m. prime time, I pay more for the right to use that airspace and that runway than an airplane that wants to land at 12:30 p.m. when there are no other aircraft.

Basically, it’s like the toll lanes on a highway, where you pay a rush hour toll and a non-rush hour toll. If you pay the rush hour toll, you’re supposed to be able to go through more quickly.

I don’t know if that’s going to be the case with airports. This congestion question, as you say, has been around for a while, and I think it probably has worked with highways. Whether or not it’s going to work at airports is an open question, because the airports they’re talking about, like La Guardia, are always crowded. So you get more money out of the airlines, but that doesn’t mean you make more airspace, and it doesn’t mean you make more runs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. And this he was talking about wasn’t an exactly solid proposal at this point. It’s to be studied more.

DAVID FIELD: It’s to be studied. The FAA has threatened to impose it at JFK in New York, which has some of the worst delays in the country. That’s under discussion now.

Freeing up the skies

JEFFREY BROWN: You just mentioned that what wasn't talked about, I guess, is more airports, more runways. It's the capacity. It's the stuff that would have to be built to free up the skies.

DAVID FIELD: That's right.

JEFFREY BROWN: That's all bigger stuff, longer term.

DAVID FIELD: That's billions of dollars.

JEFFREY BROWN: Harder to do, obviously.

DAVID FIELD: Billions of dollars and decades away. The technology is there, and the FAA is for the technology. The question now is, how do we pay for it? And that's bogged down in Congress.

Do we make private pilots pay for it? Do we shift the burden to executive aviation? Do we raise fees on passengers domestically?

We're talking many billions of dollars and many years, and we've got to decide how we pay for it before we get around to the actual "let's do it." But once we get into this so-called next generation of air traffic control, which will rely on the GPS satellites, we're going to have far more precise routing, far more precise navigation. And with those improvements in precision, we'll be able to use the airspace we have far more efficiently.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I know when you and others have been here before at times like this and we asked "What's the advice for passengers over a holiday season?" it's usually, "Be patient." And now, what, be extra patient?

DAVID FIELD: Be even more patient. It's not going to be fun.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, David Field, thanks very much.

DAVID FIELD: Thank you.

Potential security flaws

JEFFREY BROWN: And now to the second focus of our look at airline travel troubles, security.

The new report out today from the General Accountability Office had an eye-catching headline and documented how investigators exposed air safety vulnerability by smuggling bomb components through security checks.

Representatives from the GAO and the Transportation Security Administration, the agency responsible for the screenings, testified about that report before a House committee today. Gregory Kutz is the GAO's chief of forensic audits and special investigations.

GREGORY KUTZ, General Accountability Office: We successfully passed through TSA checkpoints with components for several explosive devices and an incendiary device. These prohibited items were concealed in our carry-on luggage and on our persons.

Our testing was done at 19 airports across the country, including those that employ private screeners.

We did identify several vulnerabilities. For example, most travelers are aware of the 311 rule prohibiting certain liquids and gels aboard the aircraft. We were able to bring a liquid component of the incendiary device through checkpoints undetected by studying policies related to this process.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kutz also presented video that showed the damage the devices, once assembled and detonated, could produce.

But Kip Hawley, the TSA administrator, said that layers of security exist to prevent such a device from being assembled and used on a plane and that his agency was focused on staying one step ahead of terrorists.

KIP HAWLEY, Transportation Security Administration Administrator: And there are many, many, many steps, including making the bomb, getting components through, perhaps assembling them, all those various steps. And we look at the whole system.

And the 19 layers of security that Mr. Mica mentioned and I put in my opening statement are like numbers in a combination lock. And if you find one number to a 19-number combination, you have one number. And what we've done is identify and understand the vulnerabilities in our system -- and there are vulnerabilities -- and then put in place other layers to compensate for them.

We need to be very direct in saying, "Yes, there are vulnerabilities." We can't be squeamish and say, "Oh, my goodness, they brought some firecrackers through and put it in the trunk of a car." Well, you know what? That's something that you have to face up to and say, "We need to stop all things, but we have to focus on what truly does us harm."

Exploiting the system

JEFFREY BROWN: And for a closer look at this report and today's hearing, we turn to Spencer Hsu of the Washington Post. He's reported extensively on air safety and other elements of homeland security.

Spencer, tell us a little bit more about these security tests. When were they done and how?

SPENCER HSU, The Washington Post: Thanks, Jeff. They were done earlier this year over a period of three months. GAO sent two-person teams of testers to 19 airports. And essentially, without getting into too many specifics, which they said were classified, its agents purchased these explosive components for less than $150 off the Internet or at local stores. They put them on their persons or in their bags.

And when they went through, they purposefully exploited publicly advertised TSA policies. There are some hints in the report that say that, you know, they may have distracted screeners by, you know, carrying an unlabeled bottle of shampoo that was actually shampoo, but then hiding a liquid explosive component aboard another bottle or with another bottle.

In other cases, perhaps, they used practices like, if someone had a cast, perhaps, or if there was a passenger with a special need, sometimes they get waved through without as much screening.

JEFFREY BROWN: And by exploiting TSA policies, you mean they studied what the TSA had announced they were going to do in 2006 and tried to see if they could get around it?


Practicality vs. security

JEFFREY BROWN: What was the response -- we heard the response from TSA Administrator Kip Hawley -- but, in essence, it sounded like, yes, there was a breach, but it wasn't enough to cause serious damage to an airplane?

SPENCER HSU: You know, TSA offered several defenses in response to Congress members' criticism. First of all, you heard Hawley say that we're focused on threats -- TSA and its entire defense is focused on threats that can bring down aircraft. As he put it, "Look, you know, my pen could create severe damage on an airplane."

On the other hand, they did acknowledge that this was a serious threat. And to deal with these serious threats, he mentioned, you know, that there are 19 different ways that the U.S. government has broken down the ways it tries to stop terrorism, from breaking up plots overseas, to stopping terrorists from coming into the country, to when someone is on a plane, having a law enforcement officer in the airport or an air marshal aboard the plane.

You know, the key here is that the TSA overhauled its security measures in August 2006 when British authorities broke up a plot there, discovering a new, previously unknown threat. In that case, there were a number of plotters that found that homemade bomb using household chemicals could be hidden aboard modified devices, like sport drinks or cameras and batteries, and that could bring down a plane.

You know, most of your viewers might remember, you know, that was when the TSA stopped allowing passengers from carrying any liquids aboard planes at first and then, a few weeks later, based on the investigation, changed that to allow liquids being carried on only in three-ounce fluid bottles in one-quart, clear, plastic bags.

The impetus or the impact of this finding was that, against that new threat, these measures are not enough. So security analysts might argue or skeptics might argue, if this threat was great enough to modify your security standards back in August, it should be significant enough to make sure it still works when tested this spring.

JEFFREY BROWN: I know in the part of the hearing I watched, the TSA administrator talked about what it would take to create a perfect system, and these were things about, well, you know, not allowing checked bags, and really affect flying for everyone.

SPENCER HSU: That's right. I mean, the most important point, I think, that Administrator Hawley raised -- and this is something you see across government -- is that they're in the business of risk management. Of course, if they force everyone to sort of do a strip search or not carry carry-on bags then, of course, you minimize the threat.

But you've got business travelers for whom that is not a practical solution. You've got two million people going through these checkpoints a day. There's not room or time to do a pat-down search of all of them. And airlines are not, perhaps, staffed to be able to take all this extra baggage aboard planes.

You know, there's an interesting comparison for your viewers who may have looked at the situation in Iraq with improvised explosive devices or bombs. There's an increasing school of thought that it's not enough to try and stop the bomb once it's in place. That's like a goal line defense. You need to try and stop the plotter or the plot before the bomb gets made.

You know, the United States spends $5 billion a year on airport security. TSA has estimated that to do its model system over 20 years it would take $50 billion to deploy systems at 250 airports. You know, on a second draft, they said maybe $8 billion.

But the fact is it's an awfully expensive problem if you try to stop it all at the checkpoint.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Spencer Hsu of the Washington Post, thanks very much.

SPENCER HSU: Thank you.