The US public and press are preparing for another summer of delays and damning headlines as the nation enters its third consecutive summer of congested. Fundamental reform is needed but unless that message gets through, then airlines will once again pick up the bulk of the blame

The flight attendants at United Airlines are threatening random flight disruptions under the heading Create Havoc Around Our System (CHAOS). After the experience of the last two years, a jaded US public may be moved to ask how they will notice the difference.

Last summer, one out of every four US flights was either delayed or cancelled, most by weather, many by air traffic control (ATC) problems and some by sporadic labour action, including the high profile pilots slowdown at United. The previous summer was not much better and Americans have begun to suspect that it's not just one little thing after another; not just one union or one ATC computer but a basic major problem. They are right.

The US airline industry and Federal Aviation Administration have taken a few operational steps such as agreeing on earlier sharing of weather forecasting. But that is little more than casting stones in the water when what is really needed is a parting of the waves.

The US public and its elected representatives have already begun to suspect that there is a major problem and that not enough is being done to resolve it. In the summer of 1999 this was barely a suspicion. Last year came the calls for action. Now comes the search for culprits. So far it has merely rounded up the usual suspects. The dragnet has snared big business, the same bad guys that have obtained near mythic status as the major villains in the US imagination. The chattering classes in Washington have already identified airline consolidation as the reason why service will get worse this year. The rest of the nation is apparently ready to agree. Whether they are right is an entirely different question.

It's not at all clear that taking TWA and possibly US Airways out of the running will do anything to worsen congestion or labour relations. But the conventional wisdom is that bigger is also badder, at least when it comes to good service. This proposition is more than debatable, though it has not been debated. The competition issues around the proposed dissection of US Airways can and will be argued, but it is difficult to see how that merger would be responsible for keeping aircraft on the tarmac for longer. They may further upset labour unions, but they were in dispute long before the merger issue reappeared.

Competition is a convenient whipping boy for a problem that is much bigger, more urgent and which will require much bigger thinking to resolve.

Of course, fundamental lack of capacity is part of the problem. The US airport sector has just launched the Expedited Airport System Enhancement (EASE) initiative aimed at pushing through a Bill that would speed through the most critical airport capacity projects. The group's backers reckon that the nation is currently around (80 km) (50 miles) short of runways.

As welcome as this initiative is, these are long-range projects. They will not be radical or fast enough to head off impending chaos. Rather the industry needs to grasp, or persuade the politicians to grasp, a few basic changes in the way it does business.

A fundamental is the role of the FAA. The agency has long held that its job is to wait for the airlines to tell it what they want and when they want it and then do its best to meet the demand. Certainly that's helped make the FAA into a passive shopkeeper, sitting and waiting for customers. Instead, the FAA can begin thinking about exercising some control over demand through management by incentive, by use of landing fees and charges that are more than just "cost-plus". The philosophy is as old, and as American, as the laws of supply and demand. Airline revenue managers already ensure that their passengers pay a premium to travel at peak times. Why should airline charging revenues not be similarly managed? Such a pricing scheme has already been proposed in Europe (albeit to a cold reception) as a way to spread out peak-hour traffic at hub airports and also to encourage the use of secondary airports.

A second radical change is to move the FAA towards a semi-private corporation. The concept has been mulled for years by think tanks - now, if ever, is the time to make it happen. With access to the capital markets, an air traffic corporation could borrow the kinds of money that Congress is too timid or frugal to allocate; with freedom from federal personnel rules, a corporation could pay the kind of salaries that can draw the top talent from the private sector.

A third change is needed in the way that carriers deal with labour. That issue may require a long-term rethink about the management structures with which the industry has grown up. In the short term it may mean winning the trust of employees. The airlines are on notice that someone will have to pay for the delays crisis ahead. And unless the real causes are uncovered, then it will almost certainly be them.

Source: Airline Business