Flying Our Not So Friendly Skies

This post, written by Katrina vanden Heuvel, originally appeared on The Nation

While there are extraordinarily important issues to reckon with--ending this catastrophic war and devising a sane national security policy, providing universal health care, and repairing the gutted social compact--fixing our air travel system may be one of the most potent political issues of our time.

An outdated air traffic control system, flight routes from the 1950's, and air traffic controllers retiring more quickly than they can be replaced while the Bush Administration plays hardball on a new contract and imposes work rules-- these are just some of the issues that have led to the airline "industry post[ing] its worst on-time performance since it began collecting comparable statistics in 1995."

Roughly 25 percent of domestic flights run late. And now--with 27 million passengers expected to travel over Thanksgiving and the public taking matters into its own hands with the air passenger bill of rights movement--President Bush has attempted to "solve" the problem with a little sleight-of-hand and a PR effort.

To much fanfare, Bush has opened up restricted military airspace off of the East Coast to create a "Thanksgiving express lane for congested traffic."

But the Bush Administration fails to mention that opening up military airspace is already routine. According to the Washington Post, "Such arrangements are not new. The FAA coordinates daily with the Defense Department and seeks same-day clearance to use military airspace if, for example, weather conditions are better in the military's part of the sky."

Susan Gurley, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, told the New York Times Bush's move is like "putting a Band-Aid on a broken arm." And airline industry forecaster, Michael Boyd, said, "What's all this rah-rah about the holiday season? What's changed? We're just going to stagger on the way we've been doing for the past year, vulnerable to any glitch in the system, vulnerable to any weather issues."

After the collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis I wrote about how our eroding public infrastructure demanded a real public investment agenda (just as I had called for when the levees broke in New Orleans). The antiquated air traffic system is a key part of that agenda. Now the alarms are ringing loudly on that front. So what can be done?

Experts agree that a new satellite-based navigation system is needed to "allow planes to abandon the highway maps and fly freely since a computerized system can check for conflicting flight paths." According to Boyd, airlines are currently limited to using approximately 3 percent of the sky. But that system--called NextGen for Next Generation Air Transportation System--is expected to cost up to $22 billion (less than two months in Iraq and Afghanistan) and won't be ready until 2025. Who's going to pay for it?

What is happening in the air is a microcosm of what's happening on the ground with the hedge funders. When it comes to the air traffic control system, private jet owners "incur 16 percent of the costs but pay only 3 percent." And just as hedge funders sent their lobbyists to Congress to defeat the effort for a saner tax system, so too are these tourists in corporate jets fighting to hang on to their unjust privilege of using the skies on the cheap.

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