Air carriers may reroute some flights

Friday, March 16th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ At some overcrowded airports, flights routinely are delayed at peak travel times. Other airports, though, have plenty of clear runways.

Under pressure from lawmakers, the airline industry has agreed to see if it can reroute some flights away from busier airports.

An official of the airlines' trade association told the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee Thursday that he would talk about shifting flights with his members.

``Whether that can be done through landing fees or other incentives is worth exploring,'' said Edward Merlis, senior vice president for the Air Transport Association.

During a three-hour hearing, committee members grilled federal officials and union and industry representatives about flight delays. Last year, more than one of every four flights was either delayed or canceled.

Long-term solutions came up _ building new runways, installing modern air traffic control equipment, redesigning the routes that planes fly.

Lawmakers suggested having passengers change planes at less-used airports.

``There is airport capacity beyond belief that could alleviate our problems overnight,'' said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., the subcommittee's chairman.

Many airline routes are arranged in a hub-and-spoke system, where passengers from several cities fly to one major airport, then change planes for their final destination.

Hub airports are among the most crowded; O'Hare in Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth were three of the six airports with the greatest number of flight delays in 2000, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Many passengers are just passing through, however, and presumably could change planes at less crowded airports if the airlines would set up alternative hubs. For example, two-thirds of the passengers at Pittsburgh's airport, a major hub for US Airways, change planes rather than disembark, Rogers said.

The problem is that the current hub system is very profitable, Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead said.

``The airlines don't see the same financial incentive for going to another airport,'' Mead said.

Duane Woerth, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said carriers have lost money trying to set up alternative hubs in the past.

Still, Charles Barclay, president of the American Association of Airport Executives, said the costs of delays eventually will force airlines to shift some hubs.

``The economics are going to drive them to saying, 'We've got to get more hubs in the system,''' Barclay said.

Lawmakers and the Federal Aviation Administration said they stand ready to provide incentives to encourage the airlines to reroute planes. One idea is lowering landing fees at less-used airports.

The FAA is completing a study of how many flights can safely be accommodated at 31 major airports.

If too many flights are scheduled, airlines should be encouraged to shift some of them, Mead said. If the industry does not act voluntarily, federal officials could consider steps to force carriers to move some flights. That could mean higher landing fees during peak times or fewer takeoffs and landings during certain hours.

``There are no consequences for unlimited scheduling,'' Mead said. ``If there were some consequences, you would begin to see some dispersion.''

Also Thursday, Senate Commerce Committee Thursday approved legislation that would make the airlines' voluntary consumer guidelines a legal contract with passengers; require airlines to disclose on-time performance of flights when customers buy tickets or make reservations; and require the industry to establish a timetable for reducing the number of flights delayed at least 30 minutes.

The Senate panel also approved a bill to allow the Transportation Department to take away space from dominant airlines at some hub airports and give the gates to competing carriers to spur competition.