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Monday, June 21, 2004

FAA's Airport Gridlock Fix Appears To Be Working

All Jets Treated Equally; Gets Limited Run

The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) plan to deal with airport congestion appears to be working - with all aircraft treated equally the few times that the plan had been activated.

At a so-called "Gridlock Summit" in March, all the commercial aviation players - the FAA, the airports, the major and regional carriers, the air traffic controllers and pilots - crafted a Strategic Operating Plan (SOP) to handle suddenly congested airports. Elements of the plan called for the creation of "express lanes" exiting congested airports so that backed-up departures could leave the ground. Redirecting overhead traffic and holding planes at feeder airports would create these aerial highways.

In its first three months of operation, the plan has been put in place primarily due to severe weather.

At the same time, the FAA has taken steps to ease the routine congestion at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. At first glance, all aircraft classes appear to have been treated equally.

Elements of the plan are being used more frequently than first anticipated, said William Shumann, an FAA spokesman. "We use it in a variety of ways. We may not use all parts of it every time. It is still very much a work in progress with each situation different. So far, we believe these procedures are working. The response we have been getting from the airlines has been favorable."

Despite favorable comments, confusion surrounds the plan.

Neither the airlines nor the airports report any complaints about the plan.

However, Scott Foose, a vice president at the Regional Airline Association, said the plan was designed to empty congested hubs when the traffic becomes gridlocked on the ground. "It is not related to severe weather - there are plenty of procedures in place to re-route traffic to do that job," he said.

The plan was apparently used on May 9 at O'Hare. "We were unaware it was used," Foose said, until the FAA sought comment on the plan's usage.

"There was only one occasion this spring that the SOP was implemented. Fortunately, the problems associated with congestion have been minimal since then. After meeting with air traffic controllers, we have identified a methodology to tracking costs and benefits of implanting the plan. We need to look at how well it works and undoubtedly there will be changes that will need to be made."

Both the Airport Council International-North America (ACI-NA) and the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) report that none of their member airports have complained about the way the FAA implemented the plan. "I think it has been used," said Ian Redhead, ACI-NA vice president of airport facilities and services, "but it has been transparent. That is good because I have not heard anything bad."

"Over the years when the FAA has done these plans for spring and summer travel seasons, they have done a pretty good job. This is a plan that they are constantly refining," said Tom Zoller, AAAE's vice president for regulatory affairs.

After the initial implementation efforts, Shumann said, "there has been a growing realization that the total system performance is important as well." Long compounding delays at major airports, in some cases, can be reduced by taking smaller delays at other airports - even at airports not directly feeding a potentially congested hub.

The FAA has not waited until departures are backed up by 90 minutes. Instead, Shumann said short ground delays have been implemented for inbound flights from nearby airports. This delay frees up airspace for departing flights. As an alternative, the FAA has given carriers the option of flying at 23,000 feet but no higher. "Generally, the airlines are taking the lower routes with the fuel penalty, because they can get out."

The priority system has changed, Shumann said. "We used to say that arrivals had priority. Now we are saying that is not always the rule. We will delay arrivals to permit more departures."

Foose said the "delays appear to be shared equally regardless of where the flights originate and regardless of the operator. For the program to be well received by the industry, it must be blind as far as whose name is on the side of the airplane."

The FAA recently took two steps to ease the impact of congestion at O'Hare. It asked United Airlines [UALAQ] and American Airlines [AMR] to reduce their peak hour flights by 2.5 percent. This reduction is on top of a 5 percent cut imposed in March. The two carriers, including their code-share partners, control about 80 percent of the airport's daily flights. A second measure reduces the distance between jets using the airport's two longest, but intersecting runways. The move could allow about 10 more flights per hour.

At O'Hare, all types of aircraft use these two runways, said Monique Bond, an airport spokesperson. "We are going to use whatever runways we can to get capacity - you will see it all mixed together."

>>Contacts: William Shumann, FAA, (202) 267-3883; Scott Foose, RAA, (202) 367-1212; Ian Redhead, ACI-NA, 202 293-8500; Tom Zoller, AAAE, (703) 824-0500; Monique Bond, O'Hare, (773) 686-3700.<<
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