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Bush Announces Plan to Reduce Air Travel Delays

President Bush announced new plans Thursday to minimize air travel delays and improve airline security. Two reporters assess the latest developments in the travel industry.

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  • 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.