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Clinton Plan To Ease Air Travel Delays

Trying to avoid a repeat of last year's record number airplane delays, the Clinton administration announced a plan Friday aimed at easing gridlock when spring and summer thunderstorms snarl traffic at the nation's airports.

Announcing the plan, the president said, "If we can guide the Space Shuttle into orbit and back, we should be able to guide airplanes safely around storms."

The president said travelers should be alerted right away whether bad weather will cause a delay of minutes or hours.

The initiative will feature a new Web site by the Federal Aviation Administration with up-to-the-minute information about the weather's impact on travel schedules. It will debut on April 3.

Also, traffic planners at the FAA's air traffic control system command center in Herndon, Va., will be given more authority to make decisions to keep traffic moving. The FAA and the airlines will hold teleconferences throughout the day to address conditions two to six hours away.

To help speed traffic in poor weather, the Pentagon will work with the FAA to allow use of military airspace off the East Coast. The FAA and the airlines also have developed a list of alternate routes to take aircraft around storms and have agreed to make better use of lower-level airspace to deal with more traffic at peak times.

The plan also involves shared use of high-technology weather forecasts.

It's a strategy that takes on new urgency in light of a forecast issued earlier this week that commercial airplanes flying in U.S. airspace will carry more than one billion passengers a year by 2010. That's up from 650 million last year.

Pilots seeking clearance to take off last summer heard the words "ground stop" all too often. Taxiways were clogged. Idling planes wasted fuel. Angry passengers missed flights.

"The standard ground stop during severe weather was two hours," said Paul McCarthy, an airline pilot who often flies between Boston and Washington.

Often, airport control towers didn't have timely information. "Decisions were being made in a vacuum and we can't do that if we're going to have an integrated national transportation system," said McCarthy, who declined to identify his employer during a telephone interview.

There were 197,531 air traffic control delays between April and August last year, agency figures show. That was 36 percent higher than the same five-month period in 1998. Delays in July 1999 alone were up 76 percent over the year before.

As a plane flies across the sky, air traffic controllers in these centers transfer responsibility for the aircraft like a baton in a relay race. But these controllers can't see the big picture like FAA traffic planners in Herndon can - they sit at giant screens that show weather patterns and track all flights from takeoff to landing.

Duane Woerth, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, is eager to see if the new plan will reduce deays, but he emphasized that it is no substitute for the FAA's $13 billion project to modernize the air traffic control system. And he said it will only work if the airlines are disciplined enough not to clog taxiways by letting planes leave gates out of turn.

"Everybody is going to have to play by the rules and not say, 'Whoops, I guess I'm now blocking you, United (airplane), but I really needed to clear that gate,'" Woerth said. "The amount of cooperation to make this plan work is going to be extraordinary. Nobody should be looking for a delay-free summer.

The Air Transport Association, the airlines' trade group, expects delays will be down this summer, but said the long-term solution is a modernized system that can handle an expanding fleet of planes.

"The FAA's system is broken," the group said in a report in October. "If it is not fixed, the resulting delays will virtually eliminate the dependability of airline schedules and the system will descend into gridlock."