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FAA Targets Air Traffic Delays
By DEB RIECHMANN .c The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - ``Ground stop.'' Pilots seeking clearance to take off heard these two words all too often last summer as thunderstorms and computer glitches snarled air traffic nationwide. Taxiways were clogged. Idling planes wasted fuel. Angry passengers missed flights.
To avoid a repeat of last year's delays, the Clinton administration developed a plan - to be announced Friday - to ease the gridlock during inclement weather. People in the industry say the plan aims to take a national, not just a regional, approach to managing air traffic and rerouting planes around storms.
Traffic planners at the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control system command center in Herndon, Va., will be given more authority to make decisions that keep traffic moving - a strategy that takes on new urgency in light of forecasts that commercial airplanes flying in U.S. airspace will carry more than 1 billion passengers a year by 2010. That's up from 650 million last year.
``Last summer, the standard ground stop during severe weather was two hours,'' said Paul McCarthy, an airline pilot who often flies between Boston and Washington. ``It was agony in the extreme. You'd push back from the gate on time, taxi to a remote part of the airport and set your parking brake. Passengers were packed in the back and they started sweating.''
Often, airport control towers didn't have timely information. ``Decisions were being made in a vacuum and we can't do that if we're going to have an integrated national transportation system,'' said McCarthy, who declined to identify his employer.
There were 197,531 air traffic control delays between April and August last year, agency figures show. That was 36 percent higher than the same five-month period in 1998. Delays in July 1999 alone were up 76 percent over the year before.
``We had the worst summer last year in terms of delays. It's not a good record for us,'' FAA Administrator Jane Garvey said Wednesday. ``This is not the silver bullet. We're taking, I think, some immediate, short-term steps. Our long-range answer, clearly, is modernizing the system. That's why getting the resources to see that through is so important.''
Garvey said representatives from the airlines, labor unions, controllers and regulators have met every Tuesday since last fall to find a way to deal with weather problems that were exacerbated last year by computer problems at a few of the FAA's 20 control centers.
As a plane flies across the sky, air traffic controllers in these centers transfer responsibility for the aircraft like a baton in a relay race. But these controllers can't see the big picture like FAA traffic planners in Herndon can - they sit at giant screens that show weather patterns and track all flights from takeoff to landing.
Duane Woerth, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, is eager to see if the new plan will reduce delays, but he emphasized that it is no substitute for the FAA's $13 billion project to modernize the air traffic control system. And he said it will only work if the airlines are disciplined enough not to clog taxiways by letting planes leave gates out-of-turn.
``Everybody is going to have to play by the rules and not say 'Whoops, I guess I'm now blocking you, United (airplane), but I really needed to clear that gate,''' Woerth said. ``The amount of cooperation to make this plan work is going to be extraordinary. Nobody should be looking for a delay-free summer.''
The Air Transport Association, the airlines' trade group, expects delays will be down this summer, but said the long-term solution is a modern air traffic control system that can handle an expanding fleet of planes.
``The FAA's system is broken,'' the group said in a report in October. ``If it is not fixed, the resulting delays will virtually eliminate the dependability of airline schedules and the system will descend into gridlock.''
David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said the traveling public has already waited too long for the FAA to do something about delays - passengers' No. 1 complaint.
``The government's job is to predict, plan for and then produce an efficient transportation system,'' Stempler said. ``They have failed in all those areas. You had airplanes sitting on the ground burning fuel, waiting on tarmacs or flying at slower speeds. People missed meetings. They missed flights.''
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-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), March 09, 2000