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FAA has plan to curb air traffic delays

After being hammered by airline executives for delays this summer, the Federal Aviation Administration has developed a plan to help reduce such inconveniences.

The agency, in a letter to the airlines, said it soon will have its command center in Herndon, Va., start coordinating traffic flows in bad weather, eliminating conflicts between local centers across the country.

In addition, the FAA will let the center minimize the use of extra buffers that are otherwise routinely established between planes in bad weather.

The agency also has pledged to develop a policy in which airplanes held on the ground because of bad weather will be given a specific projected departure time. Such information can then be relayed to passengers.

The FAA said a long-term improvement hinges on the continuation of the agency's $13-billion modernization program, as well as congressional approval of a plan to renew the agency for another five years. Included in that "reauthorization" bill, now stalled in the Senate, is language that would let the FAA start charging fees for some of its services.

"What we and the airlines developed is a short-term program that we believe will have the effect of reducing the delays," Eliot Brenner, the agency's chief spokesman, said Thursday.

"We all agree that what's needed over the longer term is the FAA's steady program modernizing the system, which is why the long-term reauthorization is so important to us," Brenner said.

In recent months, airlines have united in protest about air traffic delays, saying they are costing them money and contributing to rising passenger discontent.

The Air Transport Association, the airlines' trade group, estimates the more than 308,000 air traffic control delays last year cost the industry $4.1-billion _ up from $3.9-billion in 1997.

"We will never have the on-time record we want unless the (FAA) can ensure that their system keeps up with growth," Jim Goodwin, chairman of United Airlines' parent, UAL Corp., said in Chicago last month.

The FAA, which runs the air traffic control system and is responsible for ensuring passenger safety, contends that only 3 percent of air traffic problems are attributed to equipment troubles. It says three-quarters of all delays are caused by bad weather, especially in the summer, when thunderstorms are common.

At the same time, the agency is in the midst of a long-awaited program to upgrade its computers and displays in en route centers and facilities controlling traffic near airports. The FAA is also studying technology that would free pilots from the limits of the existing system of aerial highways and let planes fly routes picked by the pilots, a concept called "free flight."