Unfriendly Skies
July 29, 2009
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  • Editorial

    October 7, 2007

    It should come as no surprise to air travelers that delays in the air over New York doubled in the last three years. The number of stalled and canceled flights last summer was the worst ever recorded, with a ripple effect that brought misery to passengers across the nation. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters has correctly decided that that if she can fix the congestion problem here, she can fix it anywhere.

    It’s reassuring that the federal government has finally recognized the problem and resolved to do something about it. We only wish we shared the secretary’s belief that the airlines can effectively curb themselves.

    Ms. Peters would like carriers to come up with ways to limit congestion. Failing that, she says, the government will be forced to intervene, imposing limits on the number of flights or even a form of congestion pricing under which the carriers would pay higher fees for departing and landing during peak hours.

    But the situation remains desperate enough to warrant an emergency interim step. Ms. Peters should quickly convene a scheduling meeting with the major carriers at JFK International Airport, where delays are among the nation’s worst and where traffic soared by a whopping 25 percent during the last year. Antitrust laws prevent carriers from negotiating with each other, but transportation officials can negotiate with each airline to produce flight limits. Jet Blue – one of JFK’s biggest carriers and the focus of customer anger during major delays last February – urged such a meeting months ago. Mrs. Peters has said her goal is to make next summer’s travel less onerous, but by taking action now she might be able to help holiday travelers in November and December.

    The airlines are not alone to blame for the mess. Bad weather and the nation’s outdated radar-based traffic control have also played a role. But the competitive nature of an industry desperate to maximize revenues after years of hard times has led to excessively crowded skies and enormous inconveniences for ordinary travelers.

    Last summer’s delays produced so many horror stories that even President Bush took notice. Late last month, he directed transportation officials to do more for customers, including increasing the amount of money paid to passengers who are bumped from their flights. That would be welcome, but even better would be a system in which civilized air travel is the norm rather than the exception.

    To that end, Ms. Peters should be pushing for a federal passenger bill of rights to protect passengers from the worst indignities of airline congestion, including what amounts to incarceration on the runway. Several states, including New York, have already adopted their own codes, but they cannot guarantee consistent protection. It’s time for Washington to get on board and put passengers’ needs first.

    Source: NEW YORK TIMES
    Date: 2007-10-07