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New Plan Aims to Relieve Air Travel Congestion

December 19, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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The government announced plans on Wednesday to ease congestion for holiday air travel, including opening up military air space and limiting flights to busy New York City airports. A former Federal Aviation Administration chief and an airline representative examine the proposal.

JIM LEHRER: And first tonight, today’s Department of Transportation plan for easing congestion and delays at airports. It includes some restrictions on flights in New York-area airports. It releases military air space for holiday civilian aviation and creates a New York air czar, among other things.

We look at these steps and longer term issues with Michael Goldfarb, who was the chief of staff at the Federal Aviation Administration during the first Bush administration. He now has his own aviation consulting firm that works with air traffic controllers and others.

And Jim May, who is the president of the Air Transport Association, the trade group that represents the leading U.S. airlines.

Issues with infrastructure

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Goldfarb, what do you think of this plan? Is it going to do any good?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB, Federal Aviation Administration: Not much, Jim. I'm afraid it's a band-aid on a much, much larger problem.

I think Jim would agree that we have two major things coming together at absolutely the wrong time right now in this country. We have too much aluminum in the sky, not enough runways on the ground, too much congestion.

And then we have an infrastructure that's falling apart. So the planes in the sky have no place to land. We don't have enough airports, but we also have a workforce that's incredibly demoralized right now. So normally...


MICHAEL GOLDFARB: ... normally when you take a delay as a passenger, you're willing to take that delay because safety should never be put at risk. And now we have a situation where the administration, out of some good understanding of the degree of desperation, is trying to do rapid fixes to problems that are long term, and that could affect safety. I'm concerned about that.

JIM LEHRER: Do you share that concern, Mr. May?

JIM MAY, President, Air Transport Association: We always share a concern about safety. I think we have to keep safety first and foremost in our minds.

But I would agree with Michael -- and we've been making speeches about this for 10 or 15 years -- that the real culprit is an aging air traffic control system that needs to be completely revamped. I think Congress needs to help us get to that point, the FAA, the DOT, and others.

And this is a step, I think, in the right direction for New York, because a good part of what the secretary announced today were some operational capacity enhancements to the system. And I think that 77-item list that the DOT has put out there are things that need to be done, but we need to have, even beyond that, a far more comprehensive effort.

JIM LEHRER: Well, we'll get to that in a moment, but let's go through the specifics here.

JIM MAY: Sure.

JIM LEHRER: The restriction that -- there are some detailed restrictions about when the number of flights, particularly at JFK and all of that. How could that affect things in a positive way?

JIM MAY: Well, what they've done on a temporary basis for the next two years is place what are called caps on all three airports. They actually exist at LGA, LaGuardia today. And they're going to put caps on at JFK. And within a week or two, they'll announce caps at Newark.

I think that will limit the number of flights per hour that are going to be departing and arriving from those affected airports. I think that will smooth out, if you will, the traffic -- "de-peaking" it, is the term -- and then the air traffic control adjustments will come into play.

JIM LEHRER: Will it still be the same, roughly the same number of flights, they'll just be spread out better? Is that the deal, Mr. Goldfarb?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Well, it will have a ripple effect. And I think Jim is right that while it might ease departure delays at those airports, it's going to create other problems at airports right around that area, like Philadelphia and the others.

JIM LEHRER: Why? Why would that--

MICHAEL GOLDFARB: The problem is that some of these fixes that they announced today, bringing planes closer on final to Kennedy, using the military routes, the problem is that we just don't have the resources, we don't have the people to provide that level of change right now and to offer off the capacity.

JIM LEHRER: You're talking about people in the air traffic control system?


JIM LEHRER: The people that would be required to use this freed-up military air space with more flights, that's what's you're saying?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Right. You know, the military air space creates other problems. It will get you out of New York faster, Jim, but it won't get you to Orlando any quicker.

So, in fact, you're still backed up flying into Orlando. You still have the same amount of traffic nationwide. New York has to be dealt with, but it's a band-aid on a much, much bigger problem.

I think Jim alluded to it. Two issues: Technology is not available to allow the safe ability to put more planes in the air space. And...

JIM LEHRER: But the New York -- you think the New York thing will help a little bit?

JIM MAY: I think it will help. I think both sides of the equation in New York are going to help, both the caps and the capacity enhancements.

And I disagree with Michael. When we had the availability of New York air space during Thanksgiving, those north-south routes along the East Coast did see some improvement.

There's no question we need to be careful of spacing. There's no question that we need to involve the air traffic controllers in this dialogue, in this debate that we're having. And it's a multifaceted problem that requires a suite of solutions.

New 'air czar' created

JIM LEHRER: What about this air space czar for New York? What's that all about?

JIM MAY: What I hope is that we'll have somebody who has real authority to make real decisions to cut across jurisdictional lines...

JIM LEHRER: Moment by moment or in a big way?

JIM MAY: In a big way, to be able to implement some of the badly needed changes that have been held up. As a practical matter, you've got a lot of local citizens that are worried about noise restrictions that are holding up the overall New York air space plan.

JIM LEHRER: But an air czar is not going to be sitting around a table like this and say, "OK, let's move this flight in here," and all of that. This is a big-picture person.

MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Right. And how often have big-picture czars worked in any industry in recovery? It scares me to think of an air czar without any air traffic operational knowledge, without any understanding of what you just mentioned, the day to day.

It's all about the day to day. It's all about getting those planes off Runway 41 Left efficiently. To do that, you have to understand the operation.

So a czar, could you have a czar, like a big-picture czar? Jim, I think so. Is it going to make a capacity difference? I think not.

JIM MAY: I think it will, Michael. I disagree with you. I think it's the one suggestion that the secretary made that has support from Congress, the airlines, the Port Authority, and across the board.

We've got to try it. We used it when we had real serious congestion problems in south Florida a couple of years ago. And it made a big difference. I hope that the most congested, most complicated air space in the world, which is New York, it will make the same big difference.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Both of you agreed on one thing here, is that the problem is a lot more than a few fixes that were announced today.

JIM MAY: Correct.

Overcrowding may get worse

JIM LEHRER: Is it going to get worse, Mr. Goldfarb? Is there anything that, when you look ahead as it is now, are there going to be more flights, and less air space, and more problems, more congestion, more delays, or is there something in the works now that could fix this thing?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Well, I'll let Jim answer the air side; I'll answer the ground side. I think it's going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

JIM LEHRER: On the ground?


JIM LEHRER: There's just not enough, what, not enough runways?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB: There's not enough runways. There's not enough controllers. They're leaving in droves. They had a very bad labor agreement. I'm not certain why the administration signed such a bad labor agreement.

They have hundreds of them leaving and retiring before they're really eligible, they have to leave. So we have a shortage of work force. We have no plan to deal with that. We have a huge retirement battle.

We have equipment that the FAA historically has been unable to put in the field to help controllers and to help the airlines do the kinds of things.

JIM LEHRER: And meanwhile, your industry, the airline industry, wants more planes, more flights, wants to expand, right?

JIM MAY: We want to be able to grow, but we need to have a modern, satellite-driven air traffic control system to be able to accommodate that growth. We move 750 million people a year today. That's going to jump to a billion within the next four or five years.

JIM LEHRER: Say that again, 750 million right now?

JIM MAY: Million people a day right now.

JIM LEHRER: It's going to go to a billion?

JIM MAY: A billion.

Technology upgrade needed

JIM LEHRER: Now, what does that mean in terms of air space and airlines, I mean, and airplanes and airports?

JIM MAY: It suggests that if we are to maintain what we enjoy today, which is the safest, best record for safety we've ever enjoyed, that we have to have modern technology to aid those air traffic controllers in handling that additional traffic.

JIM LEHRER: Where is that technology?

JIM MAY: That technology is available. It's in use. It's being put in around the world today. The military is using it. It is a matter of the Congress and the administration coming together, having the will to fund that program, and implement it.

JIM LEHRER: That's a huge amount of money, right?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Well, it is, Jim. And I have a deja vu 20 years ago, because I think United Airlines in the '80s was very interested in putting in the cockpit an advanced avionics that would allow them to fly the kind of things that they're talking about now, but the ground infrastructure never came through with the...

JIM LEHRER: You mean they had them in the cockpit?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Yes, had them in the cockpit.

JIM LEHRER: But didn't have them on the ground so the thing didn't work, right?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Right. So your car today has a better GPS capability than air traffic control has.

JIM LEHRER: What? Better GPS?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB: In a car than you have right now in the air traffic control system.

JIM LEHRER: Now, how in the world did that happen?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Well, that's a wonderful question. But the real question is, is the government capable of doing exactly what Jim is asking them to do? And I agree with Jim. It's a vitally felt need to modernize and to make sure that we have as efficient technology in the cockpit as you have driving down the highway today. And we're not there.

JIM MAY: That technology is available. It is in many of the cockpits, but Michael's right. We've got to have the ground system to be able to utilize it.

JIM LEHRER: I don't detect -- maybe I'm not hearing right -- but I don't hear people blowing horns of panic. "Hey, come on, let's get on with this." Am I missing something?

JIM MAY: I think I can go back -- I've been in this business just five years now. But from the first year I was at ATA, I've been making speeches blowing that horn, trying to tell people we've got to have a well-funded, well-planned, executable next-generation air traffic, and we need it now.

JIM LEHRER: Nobody's hearing the horn?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB: I've been in this business 20 years, and I've never witnessed a worst time for the American public to fly than today. So that horn is a moment away.

JIM LEHRER: All right, thank you both. I think I thank you both very much.


JIM MAY: Let me just close by saying I think it's a continuing very safe time to fly. And I think we've got a lot of problems on the horizon, but I encourage people to take advantage of some of the lowest fares and best opportunities ever.

JIM LEHRER: I said goodbye to you, and you kept talking. And so anyhow we picked it up some.

JIM MAY: Good.

JIM LEHRER: OK, thank you both.

MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Thank you so much.