Holiday Travel Help

Monday, November 19, 2007

THE FIVE days that make up the Thanksgiving travel season are notorious for jammed airports, packed planes and overall transportation misery. After this past summer -- the worst for flight delays since the federal government started keeping records in 1995 -- this week even more has the makings of a nightmare. That's why President Bush deserves half a cheer for trying to do something to alleviate the impending pain, even with stopgap proposals.

Most immediately useful is Mr. Bush's order to open restricted military airspace to commercial planes. From 4 p.m. Wednesday until midnight Sunday, pilots will have more "lanes" of air traffic that will stretch from Florida to Maine. A third of all U.S. flights go through, take off from or land in the New York metropolitan area. The extra space will allow airlines to steer clear of bad weather (which was to blame for many flight delays and tarmac trappings in the summer) or choked air space over the region's four airports. The extra air space will be available again around Christmas.

In addition, the feds will provide travelers with real-time updates on the Web at and have ordered a halt to non-urgent maintenance at airports. At the government's urging, airlines have agreed to make extra staff, planes, rolling staircases, ticket kiosks, food and water available to keep the headaches and heartaches to a minimum.

For the longer term, Mr. Bush proposed doubling, to $800, compensation to passengers involuntarily bumped from flights and requiring airlines to provide better data on the source of delays. He's also properly pushing the idea of "congestion pricing." Airlines should have to pay premiums for using airports at peak travel times, which might encourage the airlines to spread their flights throughout the day. But at best these proposals won't help until next summer.

The best long-term fix is transforming the nation's aging air traffic control operation into a state-of-the-art satellite navigation system that will give pilots and controllers the exact location of planes in the air and on the ground, allowing them to use air space more efficiently. ITT has contracted to build more than 700 ground stations across the United States that will be the system's foundation. Estimated time of completion: 2025.

The final step is getting Congress to figure out how to pay for it. The money from congestion pricing is one way. Another is to have general and corporate aviation pay the same fee for using the air traffic control system. Those private jet owners, who incur 16 percent of the costs but pay only 3 percent, are lobbying hard against that. But they must get over it. The imbalance is unfair. The system desperately needs the money. And the nation is growing increasingly impatient.

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