San Diego Union-Tribune

August 26, 2001

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Runway tolls urged to ease air crunch



By DANA WILKIE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

August 26, 2001 

WASHINGTON -- Imagine a Labor Day weekend where people breeze
through the line at the airline counter, board 10 minutes early, spread their
belongings on the open seats beside them and arrive at their destinations
exactly on time.

In a world where long lines, crammed planes and flight delays have become
the norm, that sounds fantastical. In the world of aviation brainstorming, it is
the hoped-for result of an idea just taking root.

In places such as Los Angeles and San Diego -- where land constraints or
neighbors' resistance make it hard to expand airports or build new ones -- the solution to congested air travel might lie in a plan being floated by the nation's transportation officials.

The idea: Sell a busy airport's prime landing slots to the highest bidder, or so
drastically raise landing fees and fares that some passengers will fly elsewhere.

Paying for the privilege of an easier commute is a concept used on highways
in San Diego, Riverside and Houston.

The chief of the Federal Aviation Administration, Jane Garvey, has embraced
such market-based solutions to airport congestion, as has Transportation
Secretary Norm Mineta.

As the FAA explores this idea at La Guardia, New York's smallest but most
convenient airport, the Department of Transportation has asked airlines,
airports and consumer groups for their thoughts on using the approach
nationally.

"There's an exploding demand for air travel, but the capacity is not keeping
up, because it's impossible to build, because it takes a long time, because of
community opposition," said a Department of Transportation official who
asked not to be named.

"Ultimately, it's going to come down to how to allocate capacity at an airport.
We're trying to . . . flesh out where everyone is: How would it work? What
are the downsides? What are the benefits?"

Clifford Winston, an economist with the Brookings Institute, a think tank
based in Washington, D.C., said last year's record airline delays and
cancellations demonstrated that a wrinkle of any kind -- like stormy weather
-- can tangle the country's overtaxed aviation system.

Last year, for example, record delays at La Guardia had a cascading effect on the nation's air travel.

Getting those in the aviation industry to embrace auctions or higher landing
fees might require a "crisis . . . when it becomes absolutely clear that the
political costs of the situation are unacceptable," Winston said.

The concept behind higher landing fees is similar to the one behind rush-hour
toll roads: Make people think twice before driving when traffic is jammed. On Interstate 15 in San Diego County, motorists can pay to use HOV lanes
during rush hour. A toll road runs 10 miles from the Riverside County line to
the Costa Mesa Freeway, and along the Katy Freeway in Houston.

"The No. 1 tool for spreading out demand is to price it," said Winston, who
noted that, for nearly three decades, airline delays have increased by a couple of minutes each year. "So you're an airport user and you want to fly at peak times. We're going to charge you (extra) for doing that."

Planes now pay landing fees based on weight, so that a private plane with four commuters pays far less than a jumbo jet with 400 people -- even though the private plane strains the airport more because it is slower on the runway and in flight.

If landing fees were based on the time of day -- more for the popular 8 a.m.
flight, less for the 2 p.m. departure -- then larger planes and airlines would
probably outbid smaller carriers for prime spots, because they could spread
the additional cost across more passengers.

The hope is to reduce congestion at the nation's busier airports by having
more passengers fly in on fewer planes and by encouraging some passengers
to fly at other times of the day.

Regional carriers oppose the idea because they fear being priced out of
popular airports and landing times. And larger carriers, which tend to dislike
anything that raises their costs, argue that a new pricing structure will not
change the demand for flying at peak hours.

"The real world doesn't work like that," said Michael Wascom, spokesman
for the Air Transport Association, which represents the major U.S. airlines.
"There are certain types of people who need to travel early in the morning and late in the afternoon."

The idea, which would probably require congressional action, is disliked by
consumer advocates who say it is an elitist plan that enables only the rich to fly conveniently.

Those who run airports, on the other hand, are warming to the idea -- so long as they are allowed to keep the extra profits. Federal law restricts the amount of money an airport can make from its concessions, parking and landing fees.

"We believe airports actually have the inherent authority to (use market-based solutions) already," said Steve Van Beek, senior vice president for the Airports Council International-North America.

The FAA expects to decide by year's end whether to try auctions or higher
landing fees at La Guardia.

"We're all going to have to face the problem," a transportation department
official said. "Because it won't be long before the situation you see at La
Guardia, you'll see at other places as well."