Flying during Thanksgiving? The government is here to help

President Bush announced that the military will open some of its East Coast airspace and take other short-term measures to ease air travel congestion during the Thanksgiving holiday. Travelers often face long delays, cancelled flights and lost baggage during the holidays.

“These failures carry some real costs for the country, not just in the inconvenience they cause but in the business they obstruct and family gatherings they cause people to miss,” Bush said at a briefing Nov. 15. “We can do better. We can have an aviation system that is improved.”

The Defense Department and the Federal Aviation Administration agreed to the expanded air routes from Maine to Florida for five days surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday, from the evening of Nov. 21 through Nov. 25. The airspace allows for two more routes along the coast. FAA often requests use of military airspace during bad weather, but this agreement was a proactive step, said Nancy Kalinowski, acting vice president of system operations at FAA.

The agency also is using the Internet to provide real-time updates on flight delays. Bush promoted an FAA site where it provides information on airport backups. People can also sign up to receive delay notices on their mobile phones.

Bush also proposed long-term measures that he hopes to have in place next summer. One proposal would hold airlines responsible for inconveniencing passengers, including doubling the amount of compensation passengers receive when they are bumped from overbooked flights. For example, a passenger forced to wait more than two hours for another flight would receive a minimum of $800 instead of the current $400.

Another proposal would require that airlines collect better data on flight delays and provide it to the Transportation Department. The Bush administration is evaluating other recommendations for the airlines, including mandatory contingency plans to aid stranded passengers and penalties for chronically delayed flights.

The president suggested consideration of market incentives, such as congestion pricing, to manage the demand at popular airports. For example, fees could be higher at peak hours and at crowded airports, or takeoff and landing rights could be auctioned to the highest-value flights. These fees would encourage airlines to spread out their flights more evenly during the day, make better use of neighboring airports and move the maximum number of passengers as quickly and efficiently as possible. Federal officials have raised the idea with airlines and airport representatives in the New York area, he said.

During the Thanksgiving holiday, FAA has placed a moratorium on all nonessential maintenance and construction projects so the agency can focus its personnel and equipment exclusively on keeping flights on time. FAA is also partnering with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to reduce bottlenecks in the New York metro area, which is the source of most chronic delays. And airlines have agreed to make more staff available to expedite check-in and boarding and to set aside extra seats and even extra planes to help accommodate passengers affected by cancellations and delays.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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