Bush seeks changes to cut U.S. airline delays

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President George W. Bush directed deputies on Thursday to devise a plan to shorten airline delays, an initiative that could force carriers to change schedules and pay more to use crowded airports at the busiest times of the day.

“We’ve got a problem. We understand there’s a problem and we’re going to address the problem,” Bush said after meeting Transportation Secretary Mary Peters in the Oval Office.

Transportation Department figures show that U.S. airline delays are on a record pace for 2007. For the year to July, delays surpassed the 1 million mark, up more than 20 percent from the same period a year ago.

Nearly a third of flights are late or canceled and more than 50,000 through July had ground delays of between one and five hours, a 40 percent increase over the same period a year ago.

Some aviation experts, lawmakers and regulators blame airline overscheduling for delays while others say the government has failed to upgrade the aging air traffic system to handle the millions of arrivals and departures each year. Airlines scheduled a record 647,000 flights in July alone.

The focus of the White House discussion was congestion in the New York area, which handles a third of U.S. air traffic. Delays in New York can affect flights throughout the country.

Of immediate concern are delays at John F. Kennedy airport, which is growing fast and is a major point for international service. The most concrete step to emerge from the White House meeting was a decision for government planners to meet with the airlines to discuss scheduling changes at JFK.

Peters told reporters after meeting Bush that she preferred a cooperative approach but the Federal Aviation Administration could limit flights at JFK if necessary.

Any action at JFK would most affect JetBlue Airways Corp. , which is based there, and Delta Air Lines, which operates two terminals. American Airlines operates international and some domestic service at JFK.

Delays have been a chronic problem for the industry for nearly a decade, interrupted only by the aviation downturn that followed the hijacking attacks of 2001. Past efforts by airlines and regulators to reduce or rearrange schedules at some of the most congested airports have provided temporary relief at best.

Mike Boyd, an industry consultant, said the steps announced by the Bush administration are too late and only “dumb down” the system.

“Every flight is full, airlines are meeting the nation’s demands. The air traffic system is behind,” Boyd said, adding that airlines had failed over the years to forcefully demand improvements in air traffic services.

U.S. officials will study the concept of charging airlines more to use crowded airports at the busiest times of the day. Recommendations are due in December.

The Transportation Department has already proposed congestion pricing pilot programs at 15 airports as part of legislation to modernize the air traffic system.

Airlines oppose congestion pricing, saying it will only raise fares as extra costs are passed along to consumers.

Peters did not discount the possibility that government action could affect airline business models, such as the trend toward using more regional jets in place of larger planes.

“We don’t necessarily want to say you can’t do that, but we do want to say at the end of the day we have to reduce congestion and delay. Everything is on the table,” Peters told reporters.

Airlines quickly note shortcomings in the aging government-run air traffic system and the impact on operations in the New York area of corporate jets, a growing preference for business travelers.

“The bottom line is that there is not much we can do once an aircraft leaves the gate and enters onto the taxiway. At that point, we come under the control of an antiquated air traffic control system,” Bob Reding, executive vice president for operations at American Airlines, told a Senate hearing on Thursday.

American, Delta Air Lines and other carriers said they have already tweaked their schedules at peak hours at some airports, adjusted the time that planes sit at gates, and streamlined maintenance to ensure aircraft meet their schedules.

(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria)