August 18, 2008

Passengers Deserve Better

By Charles E. Schumer

After ignoring common-sense solutions to air congestion for years, the Bush administration is on a mission to impose an untested flight-rationing scheme on the busiest airports in the country. In pushing this plan, the administration is acting outside its legal authority and against objections from consumers, airlines and the airports. The American flying public deserves better.

No one disagrees there are serious problems in the skies. Delays, groundings and near misses on runways all threaten the safety and efficiency of our air travel system. These problems are costly, too: A May report by Congress' Joint Economic Committee, which I chair, found that delays cost our economy more than $40 billion.

The Bush administration has shunned sensible ways to ease this crisis. The Federal Aviation Administration has slow-walked critical technology upgrades, leaving us with a 1960s-era radar system. Air traffic control towers are dangerously understaffed. More than 3,000 controllers have left since 2005, and too few replacements are being trained.

Instead, the administration has proposed a harebrained scheme: capping takeoffs and landings at New York-area airports, and selling slots to the highest bidder. A plan like this has never been tried at any airport in the USA. The idea is modeled on London's road congestion pricing plan, as if strategies to manage car traffic could ever apply to air travel.

All key stakeholders have resisted auctions, including the airport operator, which is responsible for ensuring that things run smoothly. The reason is simple: This plan would mean higher fares, fewer flights and, in some cases, service cancellations. Discount carriers will struggle to outbid larger carriers, threatening service to smaller markets. Meanwhile, airlines that do buy slots will surely pass along the increased costs to fliers.

The government doesn't even have the legal authority to propose this scheme: A group of carriers is challenging the idea in court. To avoid protracted legal battles, I introduced a bipartisan measure to ban auctions. We will fight any effort to turn the nation's busiest airports into guinea pigs for this ideological experiment. Americans deserve real solutions, not untested gimmicks that will only make a bad problem worse.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer is a Democrat from New York. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>