Pressure is on the US Federal Aviation Administration not to lose sight of the need to expand airport and airspace capacity even at a time of reduced traffic levels after the 11 September attacks.

USCongress watchdog the General Accounting Office (GAO) says recent events may have moved airport and airspace congestion off centre stage as a "major national issue, [but] delays remain a problem".

Traffic in the USA is down by around 20% since 11 September, but it is expected to recover fully, and has already started to do so. Unless passenger traffic remains at current levels over the long term, which seems unlikely, "bolder, more controversial measures" will be needed, says the GAO.

The FAA launched its 10-year Operational Evolution Plan (OEP) last year, integrating 50 current and projected air traffic control modernisation programmes into a strategic document (Flight International, 19-25 June 2001). The GAO says, however, that if demand comes back, "the plan will fall far short of meeting the system's growing needs".

Rather than coming up with a new set of initiatives, OEP formed a new process in which the FAA's many capacity-growth projects were co-ordinated and given greater focus, while, according to the GAO, stakeholders were given a role in the process.

Instead the GAO wants legislators to consider new concepts. These include building wayports - airports that are essentially transfer points; setting airport landing fees to bring flight demand into line with capacity; peak-period slots for more airports; limiting general aviation at busy airports; more flexibility in gate access; and capping the control airlines exercise over airport capital projects.

Relying on new runways at existing airports will have only a limited effect, says the GAO. Adding runways at airports will not work if their terminal airspace is already congested, and even when a runway is the solution for one airport, it makes little difference if other airports are still subject to delays. Phoenix, for example, added a new runway in 2000 and has ample capacity, but the airport now ranks among the top 15 most-delayed facilities, GAO says, because of delays at other airports.

The US Department of Transportation plans new rules that would force carriers to give the public more detailed explanation of delays, a move which is expected to return the issue to public debate.

Source: Flight International