Bush Frees Up Military Airspace For Thanksgiving

Calling the holiday travel season a particular
Calling the holiday travel season a particular "season of dread for too many Americans," President Bush freed up military airspace to curb airline delays. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)
By Kendra Marr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 16, 2007

President Bush yesterday announced measures intended to curb airline delays during the Thanksgiving travel frenzy, including freeing up military airspace for commercial use.

"We can do better," Bush said at a White House briefing. "We can have an aviation system that's improved."

The Federal Aviation Administration and the Defense Department will open military airspace from Florida to Maine -- creating Thanksgiving express lanes for commercial planes -- between Wednesday and Sunday next week. In addition, the agency will impose a moratorium on nonessential maintenance projects, so equipment and personnel can be focused on holiday travel.

The president's announcement is the latest effort to address operational woes that have plagued the airline industry all year. Over the first nine months of the year, the industry has posted its worst on-time performance since it began collecting comparable statistics in 1995.

"These failures carry some real costs for the country," Bush said, "not just in the inconvenience they cause, but in the business they obstruct and family gatherings they cause people to miss."

The holiday travel season is a particular "season of dread for too many Americans," Bush said. Commercial airlines expect 27 million passengers during the 12-day Thanksgiving travel period, which begins today, with planes 90 percent full, according to the Air Transport Association, a trade group.

Industry critics said the measures laid out by Bush don't address the root of the problem of airline delays: the nation's outdated air traffic control system. The airline industry continues to use radar and radio to guide planes, and a program to upgrade the system to make use of satellite positioning technology is not expected to be finished until 2025.

"We still fly in the national air transportation system the same way we flew 50 years ago," said Richard Anderson, chief executive of Delta Air Lines, who testified before the House Transportation Committee yesterday.

Delays and congestion are the products of operating on this tightly controlled highway system, said Michael Boyd, an aviation analyst. Adding military airspace is still a small slice of the sky and won't speed up takeoffs and landings, he said.

"Airlines today use 3 percent of the sky," Boyd said. "We keep them in nice little rows all backed-up with each other."

Airliners fly on set routes, much like highways in the sky. The additional airspace provided by the military -- normally used for training and flying planes to aircraft carriers offshore -- amounts to the equivalent of at least two more highway lanes, FAA officials said.

Such arrangements are not new. The FAA coordinates daily with the Defense Department and seeks same-day clearance to use military airspace if, for example, weather conditions are better in the military's part of the sky. The scheme announced by the president, however, was unusual because the administration was asking for a large chunk of airspace in advance, FAA officials said.

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