Bush Eyes Expanding Aviation Capacity; Mineta Outlines Plan to Prevent 'Gridlock in Our National Airspace'

Article excerpt

Byline: Tom Ramstack, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Bush administration yesterday announced a plan to ease growing air traffic congestion and flight delays by tripling the nation's civil aviation capacity in the next 15 to 20 years.

"Unless we act now, our leadership is in jeopardy and we could be facing gridlock in our national airspace," Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said.

Although he gave few details, Mr. Mineta said increased aviation capacity would come from a combination of more runways, more control towers, better radar systems and improved global positioning satellite systems.

Much of the program would be funded from the Federal Aviation Administration's annual budget, though Mr. Mineta gave no cost estimate.

"The good news is that the passengers are coming back," Mr. Mineta said about the increase in airline business since the September 11 attacks. "The bad news is that our system is again beginning to show signs of stress."

The number of miles traveled by commercial airlines in the United States increased from 119 billion in the last quarter of 2002 to 123.1 billion in the third quarter of 2003, the last date for which the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics has reported data.

Late departures increased from 643,919 in 2002 to 736,587 in 2003, although the percentage of on-time arrivals remained about the same at just over 82 percent.

Mr. Mineta mentioned Chicago's O'Hare International Airport as an example of an airport whose capacity limits hurt airline service.

Last week, the nation's two largest airlines agreed to reduce the number of peak-time flights by 5 percent at O'Hare Airport to ease congestion. American Airlines and United Airlines agreed to the reductions under pressure from the FAA.

"Restricting and rationing service cannot be our long-term answer to congestion," said Mr. Mineta, who spoke before the Aero Club of Washington at a downtown hotel.

Instead, improvements are needed to maintain aviation as an important part of the nation's economy, he said.

"Civil aviation represents 9 percent of our domestic gross national product," Mr. …