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Perhaps President Bush is looking ahead to January 2009, when he must give up his personal jetliner, Air Force One, and his personal chopper, Marine One, and begin flying commercial. He, of course, will receive VIP treatment, but even so, if his plane is delayed, so will he.
And the odds of that happening are unhappily good and getting better. A year of record air travel has also been a year of record low punctuality, with about one-fourth of all flights arriving late.
So with the crush of Thanksgiving and Christmas travel approaching, the White House has announced a series of measures that it hopes will temporarily relieve the congestion. Domestic carriers will fly 27 million passengers — most of them in planes 90 percent or more full — over the 12 days straddling the Thanksgiving holiday.
From Wednesday through Sunday, the two heaviest Thanksgiving travel days, airspace normally reserved for the military will be freed up to create an “express lane” from Maine to Florida, and it will be done again for Christmas.
The Federal Aviation Administration will pull employees off non-critical tasks to concentrate on keeping the planes on time. The FAA will focus especially on the New York-New Jersey area, which handles one-third of the nation’s air traffic but accounts for three-quarters of the delays.
The FAA will also propose regulations to double the bump fees for passengers with a ticket but no seat from $200-$400 to $400-$800 and impose penalties for flights that are chronically late — 15 minutes or more 70 percent of the time.
The White House concedes that these are only short-term patches, but Congress has been slow to move on legislation, including a Bush administration bill, that looks to the long-term. It is a daunting task, especially in terms of money.
The air-traffic-control system is badly in need of modernization. A retiring generation of air-traffic controllers must be replaced. A backlog of airport construction and expansion must be addressed. And the airlines must be cajoled and bullied into making more efficient use of gates and arrival times.
Trust us ordinary stiffs in coach, Mr. President, when we tell you the presidential perk you’re going to miss the most is Air Force One. See you at the gate.