Auction Airline Slots
The FAA needs clear authority to bring order to the skies.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

THE FEDERAL Aviation Administration came up with a good idea to help relieve the congestion over the three New York City-area airports at peak flying hours: Auction off valuable slots for takeoff times. This certainly makes sense to us. As weary travelers know from sitting on packed planes that can't get off the ground because everyone else is trying to do the same thing at the same time, the right to fly at 9 a.m. or 5:30 p.m. is a valuable commodity. It's a commodity that belongs to you, the taxpayer, and the airlines should no longer get it free.

This argument sends the Air Transport Association, the air carrier trade organization, into conniptions. It wasn't thrilled with the cap of 81 takeoffs and landings per hour that was imposed this year by the FAA at Newark Liberty and at John F. Kennedy international airports. (LaGuardia Airport has had flight caps since the 1960s.) For the association, the auctioning of some of those slots was a step too far, and it sued to stop it in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. A ruling is months away. Money earned from auctioning slots would be invested in improvements to reduce congestion and increase airport capacity.

Auction opponents got a major assist this week when the Government Accountability Office issued a nonbinding opinion that the FAA does not have the authority to auction the slots. The argument centered on whether the slots are the property of the FAA. "We conclude that FAA may not auction slots under its property disposition authority, user fee authority or any other authority," wrote GAO general counsel Gary Kepplinger. The Transportation Department disagrees.

But if there is one area of agreement between the feds and the association, it is that Congress could settle the question of whether the FAA has the authority to auction. This is a task that is most likely to fall to the 111th Congress, which comes to Washington in January, and it should give the FAA clear statutory authority. The airlines can't land or take off without the agency's permission. And they should have to pay for doing so at peak times.

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