The first half of 2007 was the worst year on record for airline delays—21 percent of all departing flights were late—and the news in July and August didn't get any better. In the past two weeks, the Federal Aviation Administration has taken long-term steps to improve technology and relieve congestion, but fliers want relief now. Some plans already underway and some others being discussed:
GPS technology. Most control centers track aircraft using 50-year-old radar, a logistical nightmare as planes pass from one system's zone to another. Last month, the FAA committed $1.8 billion for new technology, based on GPS, that should enhance precision and allow for better coordination of planes on final approach.
Because of the difficulty of installing the technology, though, fliers might not see improvements until as late as 2020. Further, commercial operators and private aviation are at odds over how to pay for the new system. In particular, the general aviation lobby opposes the FAA's proposal to levy a $25-per-flight fee on all but the smallest planes.
Redesigning the Northeast airspace. Last week, the FAA announced new flight patterns that it estimates will reduce delays in the region 20 percent by 2011. For example, the new routes will end the interference of westbound departures from Kennedy airport and departures from LaGuardia and Newark that follow the same paths.
The idea is to untangle planes in the sky so that they can take off promptly and avoid circling while awaiting permission to land. The plan hit a snag last week when several New York-area communities filed lawsuits, citing expected noise from increased air traffic.
Expanded runways. Many air traffic controllers say the solution is more runways, not better flight plans. Airlines are booking more flights than can be handled by current runways, they say, and ground space will have to expand as more jets take to the sky. While the laws of physics limit how frequently planes can land, airline officials counter that more delays result from crowded skies around the airport, not a long queue on the ground. The Air Transport Association says companies that have tested new navigational patterns during descent are saving millions of dollars in fuel by reducing time wasted in the sky.
More controllers. The nation's 15,000 air traffic controllers say they have lost more than 1,000 controllers over the past three years and face even greater losses with upcoming retirements. As evidence that they are overstretched, they cite a rash of mishaps, including a recent incident in Atlanta, where a newly minted controller gave descent permission to the wrong aircraft. The error caused the plane to pass through the paths of other circling planes. The FAA, however, argues there are plenty of controllers in the pipeline to fill current and future needs. And it says the current training program is sufficient.
Privatizing air traffic control. Turning the air traffic control system into a quasi-governmental corporation would reduce bureaucracy and improve efficiency, say some former transportation officials, noting that several European countries and Canada already have such a system. The air traffic controllers union, however, is vehemently opposed to the privatization concept. It says a tighter focus on the bottom line would eliminate jobs and encourage cutbacks on safety measures.