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Airline lobby impatient with delays on new traffic control system

U.S.

U.S. airline chief executives on the board of the Air Transport Association are heartened that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said this week that modernization of the national air-traffic control system will be the top priority of the Federal Aviation Administration, said Glenn Tilton, CEO of United Airlines parent UAL Corp. and current chairman of the industry lobbying group.

But Mr. Tilton, speaking at an aviation conference here Friday, also said the industry is fed up with delays that have plagued the program, which is intended to modernize the air-traffic control system by moving to a satellite-based system from the current ground-based system. He quoted Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D., W.V.), who testified recently that he is losing patience with the delays, and said the ATA agrees. Both Sen. Rockefeller and Sen. Bryon Dorgan (D., N.D.) “spoke to the need to urgently press ahead, such that we might move the U.S. past Mongolia in ATC systems rankings,” Mr. Tilton said.

The United CEO said air travel delays cost U.S. businesses, passengers and shippers $40 billion a year. The current system, which can barely cope with the level of air traffic in the skies today, costs United alone $600 million a year, the company estimates. With a new ATC system, safety would be improved, airlines would become more punctual, burn less fuel and reduce carbon emissions, Mr. Tilton said.

The airline industry was enthused that the Obama administration is using federal stimulus investments to improve infrastructure and enable economic recovery. “While it makes sense that projects need to be ‘shovel-ready’ to help these efforts in 2009, they must have to be ‘next generation’ to sustain future growth in the years ahead,” Mr. Tilton said. “Why then is rapid rail in the stimulus package for some $9 billion and for next gen, zero?”

In an interview, Mr. Tilton said he doesn’t know why the project wasn’t included in the stimulus package. “Perhaps the absence of an FAA administrator left the project without an advocate,” he said. “If there were to be a second stimulus package, I and the ATA board would make a compelling case for next gen inclusion.”

When the White House appoints a new FAA administrator, a step expected very soon, the new FAA chief should try to bring the timetable for the ATC system forward and “front-load the benefits,” Mr. Tilton said. “What can we do promptly with technology available today?” It should be now-gen rather than next-gen.”