Flying low

Congested airways are not just an inconvenience but also an economic problem.

Yet one hears little if any discussion on the presidential campaign about how to improve air transportation, and in Congress, legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is stuck because of a divisive debate over how to pay for a modernization of the air traffic control system. Some lobbyists think the legislation is likely to be delayed at least until next year.

But putting off necessary change will do more than further inconvenience already beleaguered air travelers. It will also hamper the U.S. economy by delaying travelers and adding to the cost of business. It will also, inevitably, raise questions about travelers’ confidence in the safety of an increasingly crowded system.

In 2006, the FAA estimates, 830 million passengers flew in America’s skies. By 2015, that number will grow to 1 billion.

Flight cancellations are already annoyingly common for frequent travelers. Planes are crowded, seats packed tight, and flights delayed.

Because flights in the early morning and evening are more popular, airlines overbook takeoffs and departures at those convenient times to the point where it is impossible for all of those scheduled flights to leave on time.

And because all air traffic is interconnected, delayed flights at one airport domino into delays and cancellations elsewhere, meaning Chicago’s problem becomes New York’s problem becomes Miami’s problem.

Given the expected rise in passengers, this problem is likely to grow rather than diminish. Already the FAA has taken steps to limit the number of flights leaving JFK International Airport in New York City in an effort to get on top of crippling delays. This cap on supply should increase the cost of travel, and provides another reason for government to get more involved.

The FAA argues that its modernization would improve safety by shifting air traffic controls from radio communications between airplanes and towers to a satellite system that would provide up-to-the-second airspace information to pilots and controllers.

The debate is over how to pay for the system’s $40 billion cost, and the main immediate problem is in the Senate, where two committees are battling over who should foot the bill. An intense lobbying fight between commercial airlines and interests protecting business jets and smaller planes has contributed to a divisive climate. Both sides have accused the other of trying to make them pay for too much of the costs.

In the meantime, the real losers will continue to be America’s weary travelers.