World and Nation

Commercial Airlines Given Priority In Military Airspace to Cut Delays

A week before the peak Thanksgiving travel period, the White House got involved at an unusually detailed level with air traffic, as President Bush announced Thursday that airlines will be able to make fuller use of military airspace to relieve congestion and cut delays.

As part of a plan “to bring order to America’s skies,” Bush said that an agreement between the Federal Aviation Administration and the Defense Department will allow commercial airlines to plan in advance to route flights through areas off the Atlantic coast where the Air National Guard and the Air Force conduct exercises. Normally, the FAA asks the Pentagon for use of offshore airspace on a day-by-day or even hour-by-hour basis.

The experiment will start Wednesday and run through the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

If the experiment works then, it could be used again at the end of the year, said Mary E. Peters, the secretary of transportation. She compared the routes to highway shoulders that are opened for traffic during rush hour.

Depending on weather and traffic conditions, the change could be of particular benefit to travelers using airports in the New York City area, where bottlenecks set off delays that cascade across the country.

Peters also said that the FAA would suspend nonessential construction and maintenance during the Thanksgiving and Christmas periods to minimize disruption.

The White House is considering a variety of steps aimed at cutting delays, or at least getting a better handle on them, but these would take months or years to put in place.

For example, Transportation Department statistics might be changed to reflect delays involving planes that push back from the gate on time but then sit on the tarmac. In addition, flights that are canceled might be figured into the delay statistics.

The White House is considering whether to penalize airlines for an “unfair and deceptive” practice if they publish schedules that airplanes miss by more than 15 minutes more than 70 percent of the time.

The administration will also push forward with a proposal announced earlier to double the compensation for passengers who have reserved seats but are “bumped” from flights that are oversold.

In the wake of several widely publicized cases in which passengers sat for hours in planes whose takeoffs were delayed, the administration is considering whether to require that the airlines adopt legally binding plans to guarantee food, water, bathrooms and medical attention.

The airlines reacted with support to the president’s statement.

“We share the administration’s frustrations and applaud the efforts of President Bush, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Defense for the numerous operational steps they are taking to improve air service and reduce delays,” said James C. May, the president of the Air Transport Association, the airlines’ trade group.

Bush’s announcement was also applauded by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who had called for opening up the military airspace. He said the change should be made permanent.