The House Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation held a major hearing on airline delays and consumer issues, and your humble blogger was there to pass on the highlights. The hearing came at the heels of “the worst summer for airline delays” since the Bureau of Transportation Statistics began keeping records thirteen years ago. Only 72.2 percent of flights were on time. Why? Weather, crowded skies, airline issues, scheduling problems, congestion, everything else that regular readers of this blog will be familiar with. The first panel of the hearing featured government officials, including the acting FAA chief, and the second featured aviation stakeholders.
Readers of this blog will be familiar with the background of the current aviation “crisis.” For those who need more, a background paper is here. The hearing was held against the backdrop of the House’s FAA reauthorization bill, which rejected the airlines’ preferred user fees approach to funding air traffic control, instead pumping more money into the agency and continuing to rely on fuel taxes.
I’m not going to summarize what each person said or go over each exchange. Instead, here’s the highlights reel:
- Subcommittee chairman Jerry Costello criticized the FAA’s original proposal to Congress that included user fees because its only supporters were airlines. He said we needed an approach that all stakeholders could get behind.
- He also criticized the FAA for hyping its various Next Generation programs and making the public think NextGen is coming soon, when it is actually a long way off. (FAA acting administrator Robert Sturgell responded that NextGen is a large array of improvements, some of which, like airspace restructuring, will be on line soon. The signature NextGen program, ADS-B–satellite-based monitoring of planes–won’t begin to be deployed for at least six years.) Costello wanted to know what the FAA would do now. This was a constant theme throughout the afternoon. Costello later asked Sturgell what he would do between now and December 31 to solve the delay problems.
- Sturgell, for his part, was not very responsive–he has only been on the job a couple weeks, poor guy–offering vague answers. Several Congressmen asked him specifically if he would use the FAA’s authority to restrict operations at key airports as it did at Chicago O’Hare in 2004. Again and again, Sturgell insisted that it was an option under consideration, never yielding to the Congressmen’s demand for a commitment.
- Many observers blame the airlines for overscheduling, but they are merely responding to high demand. It’s a shame our air traffic control system is not in a condition to respond to this demand. As transportation committee ranking member John Mica said, “We need to stop blaming airlines and air traffic control–blame government for not doing its job!”
- Agam Sinha of MITRE pointed out a little-discussed fact: seven airports (JFK, Newark, O’Hare, LaGuardia, Philadelphia, and Houston Intercontinental) account for 72 percent of delays. Operations are actually down at other airports since 2000, but up 10 percent at these airports. Delays have risen dramatically at these airports but fallen or remained constant at others. The trouble is that these are all big hubs–five big U.S. airlines have hubs at one or more of these airports–and four of them are in confined airspace with really unpredictable weather over the past few years. Those two factors make delays at the seven matter around the country.
- Transportation chairman Jim Oberstar repeatedly pushed for commitments on capping schedules. Sturgell refused to commit, pointing out the downsides of mandatory restrictions by the FAA: a loss of service to small communities (with limited slots, airlines would focus on more profitable routes) and an unwillingness to innovate as the status quo holds.
- Representative Steve Cohen of Memphis brought up yesterday’s Memphis ATC outage. He also had harsh words for the fleets of regional jets thought to be gumming up the skies. Are RJs part of the delay problem? he asked. To the extent that it means more flights carrying fewer people, the FAA replied “Duh.” (At least I wished it had.) Congressman John Duncan Jr. of Knoxville, at the other end of Cohen’s state, urged caution in policies that would affect RJ service. He said that RJs have been the lifeblood of aviation choice at airports like McGhee-Tyson in his hometown. Later in the hearing, Roger Cohen of the Regional Airline Association debunked claims that RJs are primarily connecting large cities. He showed that they primarily connect small to medium markets with major hubs, and that they will be the first to get cut when scheduling caps are imposed.
- Boston congressman Michael Capuano was mad. “The FAA’s failure to act is embarrassing,” he said. “The free market is not working.” He urged the FAA to adopt regulation to solve the ATC problems.
- Representative Howard Coble related an anecdote from a constituent about preferring the dentist to air travel. The constituent added: “I would exclusively travel by bus or train if it weren’t for the time constraints.” My thought: no joke, Sherlock. That’s the reason we still travel by air so much: no matter how many delays there are, air travel is fast and cheap and still compares favorable on this basis with most other long-distance travel options.
- Oberstar asked D. J. Gribbin, general counsel at DOT, if he would organize meetings with the airlines to seek voluntary schedule reductions, and if the airlines would not accept, if he would seek to put schedule limitations in place. Gribbin replied that there are three options to respond to overscheduling: (1) do nothing, (2) impose an arbitrary administrative solution, or (3) implement congestion pricing. The FAA’s original proposal included congestion pricing authority. Oberstar wants the airlines to “sit down and talk”–which they can’t do without fear of antitrust. But negotiating caps on flights with the FAA is rife for influence-peddling and lobbying. Economists always prefer a tax system to reduce demand. Airlines “sitting down to talk” will try every trick to maintain their current levels of service at the expense of their competitors; a tax is far fairer. As Gribbin said, right now airlines have incentives to overschedule flights. A negotiated settlement will not end those incentives. A congestion pricing scheme will.
- One of the members said that a congestion-pricing pilot program was authorized in the bill; I couldn’t find it. If you find it, email me.
- A representative of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said that the main thing needed to improve air service is more concrete: additional runways and taxiways. But it can take over ten years to build a runway, and only a few are currently in progress. He also blamed airline scheduling practices for delays.
- Jim May, head of the airline lobby ATA, made his lonely case that delays are due to general aviation, especially corporate jet travel. He urged user fees for FAA funding and the rapid approval of the FAA’s overdue New York airspace redesign. Countering May was an executive at the National Business Aviation Association, who said that airline delays are a “self-inflicted wound,” since general aviation prefers uncongested reliever airports to busy hubs.
- One subcommittee member opposed to user fees–I can’t remember who–kept referring to user fees as a “European system.”
- Kate Hanni, an American Airlines passenger stuck on a grounded plane for several hours, urged the House-Senate conference to adopt even more stringent passenger protection legislation that they have both approved.
Everyone seems to pile on the airlines, but I think Gribbin is most right here: airlines have incentives to overschedule. Congestion pricing of air travel would go a long way toward restoring incentives for responsible scheduling. Apart from that, there was little new material at these hearings. It was, however, informative to see all the officials and stakeholders together to offer their ideas and solutions for our current aviation difficulties.