The Democrats take-over of the US Senate has already begun to show through in a more aggressive antitrust agenda and pressure for federal action on delays.

The Senate Commerce Committee has already dramatically revised a measure that was expected to win easy clearance under predecessor Republicans and their fellow committee chairman, John McCain of Arizona. The legislation - written by former aviation subcommittee chair Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican - would have allowed carriers to collaborate on scheduling flights at peak periods at hub airports, without fear of antitrust prosecution, as a way to reduce congestion.

The bill had been seen as poised for swift passage but the committee, under new chairman Ernest 'Fritz' Holdings, the South Carolina Democrat who is a long-time sceptic about airline deregulation, changed the measure considerably. Democrats shepherded through provisions that would limit the occasions on which the carriers could talk and provided for public review of the scheduling sessions, which also limited the scope of the airline discussions. The changes are clear evidence of the Democrat hand, say Congressional observers.

Aided by new aviation panel chair Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat whose state has lost much air service under deregulation, the committee also transformed the scheduling measure into one that would use the power of the federal purse strings to force airports to expand.

Hollings and Rockefeller would have the transportation secretary compile a list of the most delay-prone airports and compel them to start actual construction of runways or other capacity improvements within five years - a clear statement of the Democratic philosophy of federal pressure. An airport that does not meet the five-year deadline would lose certain federal funds and would lose the right to collect local passenger departure fees.

The Democratic take-over of the Senate has also relieved pressure on the FAA to consider congestion pricing or other market-based remedies at New York's LaGuardia airport. The source of a huge portion of the nation's air traffic delays, the LaGuardia slots have been distributed by lottery since February. This was pending a long-term solution that was expected to embrace congestion pricing - a scheme advanced by political conservatives. But the FAA has decided to continue the lottery past its expiration set for September, smoothly avoiding a politically risky situation.

The agency says that delays at LaGuardia have declined, although that is due as much to divine intervention in the form of good weather as to air traffic control changes that the FAA has made over the past few years.

Source: Airline Business