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Mon, Mar 08, 2004

Here Comes The Crunch

FAA Expects Overcrowded Skies Later This Year

As fractional bizjet ownership and regional jets fill the already crowded American skies, FAA officials are becoming alarmed at the number of aircraft competing for airspace.

"We're expecting a crunch in late spring or summer," said H. Keith Hagy, assistant director of the engineering and air safety department at the Air Line Pilots Association. He was quoted over the weekend by the New York Times.

"There's going to be a lot more competition for the airspace," said David Watrous, the president of an industry advisory group, the RTCA, formerly known as the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics.

The FAA is supposed to act as traffic cop in this situation, but it's quickly becoming challenged to keep up. Regional jets are entering the market at a rate of 200 per year -- in spite of the post-9/11 slump, war in the Persian Gulf and SARS. And as the FAA is expected to keep up with the change in high-altitude traffic patterns, its revenues, based mainly on ticket taxes, have remained flat.

The situation is becoming worse on the ground, where RJs are flying from runways traditionally reserved for the heavies.

"There's a finite amount of concrete. If you take one 747 out and put two RJ's in, it's just one more aircraft in the air traffic environment and the runway environment," said J. Randolph Babbitt, a former ALPA president and current aviation consultant. The problem is only expected to get worse when Eclipse Aviation begins delivery of its four-place twin-engine jet in 2006. That aircraft sells for under $1 million, a price point almost guaranteed to attract business travelers and fractional owners.

Already, the big boys are complaining. Ira Pearl, Delta Airlines' director of flight operations, recently groused about delays at Fort Lauderdale (FL) one recent Saturday. He said one of his company's wide-body jets was left sizzling on the tarmac for 45 minutes as it was number 13 in line behind a gaggle of corporate aircraft.

"HOV lanes in the sky are something to think about," he said, referring to preferential lanes given car pools and autos carrying more than one person.

But NBAA spokesman Peter West says the increase in high-altitude air traffic is a sign that the economy is improving -- something to celebrate, not condemn. He says the solution is to increase capacity, not reduce traffic.

FMI: www.nbaa.org

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