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FAA Administrator Marion Blakey puts airlines on notice as she walks out the door.

Friday, September 14, 2007

IN WHAT amounted to a farewell speech before the Aero Club of Washington, Marion C. Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, laid down a challenge to the airlines: Cut back the number of flights at peak times on the East Coast voluntarily before the government steps in and forces the change.

This summer in air travel was terrible. The delays were the worst since the federal government started keeping track in 1995. Several factors played a role, including severe weather in the New York City area that crippled air traffic across the country. "No, you can't control Mother Nature," said Ms. Blakey, whose last day on the job was yesterday. "But airlines can control their own schedules." She went on to say, "And if the airlines don't address this voluntarily, don't be surprised when the government steps in."

Ms. Blakey cited the example of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, where the FAA in 2004 pushed the airlines to reduce the number of takeoffs and landings between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. to 88 per hour, down from 130 or more. As a result, delays were reduced by 24.5 percent in 2005. The clampdown is working so well that it has been extended twice.

Ms. Blakey's focus on the East Coast is right. A third of all flights go through New York airspace. Three of the five worst airports for delays -- Newark Liberty International, John F. Kennedy International and La Guardia -- are in the New York area. Time and again, trouble at those airports means trouble almost everywhere else.

But don't expect the airlines to do anything unilaterally. Don't expect them to get together to discuss possible schedule reduction strategies. That would put them at risk of breaking antitrust laws. What's needed is a call by the FAA for a "schedule reduction meeting." JetBlue asked for one in June. The letter from the JFK-based airline and the horrendous travel delays spurred the Transportation Department to create an in-house working group to look at ways the FAA could reduce air traffic on the East Coast, including holding such a schedule meeting. But there are myriad complex issues associated with JFK that don't exist at O'Hare, including international carriers that swarm in and out of the airport during peak afternoon hours. While it might seem disingenuous of Ms. Blakey to call for something that had been within her power to do, her admonition to the airline industry was clear: Change is coming. The airlines had better be ready.

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