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Flight delays need innovative ideas from FAA

The Federal Aviation Administration last week went through three frustrating days of headbanging and jawboning that failed to yield an agreement among airlines to cut back on flights at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, which has more takeoffs and landings per year than any airport in the world. Now we’ll see if the FAA makes good on its threat to mandate cutbacks itself, which is always a politically sensitive matter.

The best way to allocate flights (short of privatizing the air traffic control system, as countries like England and Canada have partially accomplished) is through a market-like pricing system for landing fees. However, the FAA is a hidebound government bureaucracy that oddly prides itself on not operating like a business — which is one of the main reasons for overcrowding at airports and subsequent delays — so it is more likely to act arbitrarily.

Flight delays are a real problem that has intensified as the airline industry has recovered from its post-9/11 doldrums. Because O’Hare is a “hub” through which many connecting flights are routed, delays there have a cascading effect around the country. After airlines expanded their schedules at O’Hare beginning last November, on-time arrivals fell from 75-85 percent to about 60 percent.

Earlier this year the FAA convinced United Air Lines and American Airlines, which dominate O’Hare schedules, to reduce their schedules during peak hours. But other airlines, especially those running small commuter jets, quickly jumped into the slots the two giants had given up. While small commuter jets carry fewer passengers, they use the same runways as the larger jets. They now account for about four of 10 O’Hare flights, a significant increase in the last several years.

Airlines pay airports a landing fee based on the weight of the planes, a method the FAA chose years ago and is resistant to changing. If the goal were to move the maximum number of passengers, the measure would be revised, since small jets use the same facilities as the larger jets.

An intelligent pricing system would also charge a premium for more desirable time slots. But the FAA, which has to approve landing fees, has resisted variable pricing schemes for years.

The FAA also has spent billions on upgrades to the air traffic control system that have never quite come on-line, thus keeping capacity artificially low.

Robert E. Poole Jr., director of transportation studies at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, has a proposal to meet the immediate crisis. “I would simply tack an extra $1,000 to the landing fee regardless of the size of the plane,” he said, “and let the smaller commuter companies decide if it was worth it.” He says the fee could be adjusted up or down until the desired reduction in flights was achieved.

That makes sense, so the FAA is unlikely to do it.

Too bad.