Panel explains gridlock at the nation's airports

A panel of aviation experts agreed today that air traffic delays are getting worse, but testimony differed sharply when it came to assessing blame.

Testifying before the House Aviation Subcommittee, panelists laid blame for delays on problems ranging from an aging and ailing air traffic control system, to an increase in the number of jets in the air, to airlines' concern with profits and the bottom line.

Federal Aviation Administration administrator Jane Garvey said all parties involved in the management of the nation's airspace should share responsibility for delays.

"Bad weather, inoperable runways, airport capacity limitations, aircraft equipment problems, maintenance and crew problems, and, yes, air traffic equipment outages and air traffic procedures, all contribute to delays," Garvey said. Despite these problems, Garvey testified that the FAA is making great strides in modernizing its air traffic control systems.

Other members of the panel put the blame on airlines' greed and FAA mismanagement.

"To maximize profits, airlines are intentionally overloading the system," said Randy Schwitz, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "Schedules are blindly made to reduce operating costs and maximize revenue without regard for other airlines, terminal airspace or airport capacity. . . . Aviation is about more than making money for airlines."

Carol Hallett, president and chief executive officer of the Air Transport Association of America, said that delays as a result of flight load "are insignificant in comparison with the numerous instances this summer where aircraft were delayed over six hours by the FAA and an inadequately managed [air traffic control] system."

Capt. Duane Woerth, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, agreed that the air traffic control system is outdated, but he also pointed toward the "explosion" of regional jet services and the difficulty of building new airports and runways. More jets lead to congested skies and delays, and community opposition to new runways and airports—typically because of noise—makes it difficult to accommodate an increase in fights, he said.

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