Airline executives have by now taken note that people are willing to spend good money to fly long-haul to exotic destinations halfway around the world but get awfully upset spending a similar amount of time on an aircraft that goes nowhere.

During this winter of passenger discontent, American got a public relations black eye when it kept a planeload of travelers sitting on the tarmac for more than eight hours in Austin, Texas. JetBlue got a matching shiner a month-and-a-half later for similar behavior at New York's JFK.

The airlines face not only bad publicity but threats of class actions. The last time passengers got this litigiously upset about sitting on a plane was eight years earlier, when Northwest kept passengers onboard a grounded aircraft amid deteriorating conditions.

In the intervening years, there have been plenty of winter storms resulting in massive delays and cancellations, yet their aftermath sparked little outrage.

Has something changed? Why did airlines risk igniting passenger fury by keeping them captive on the plane rather than returning to a gate? Sometimes, as happened at JFK, they can't return; Jet Blue ran out of gates. And there are other legitimate operational reasons to stay on the tarmac if there's a chance that a flight may be cleared for takeoff in the foreseeable future.

Still, when the deplaning option does exist, there's a factor that clouds an airline's judgment: air traffic control. Airlines are loathe to lose their place in the takeoff queue once a plane leaves the gate. This is in part a function of getting airplanes and people where they're supposed to be -- to avoid having more disgruntled passengers down the line -- but it's also related to overcrowded airports and skies. If you lose your place in line, you may increase your delay by hours if you return to a gate.

The 36% rise in air traffic that is predicted over the next 10 years will result in an even greater increase in air traffic control-related delays. The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that by 2014, delays will have grown by 62% over 2004 levels. 

At the FAA's annual forecast conference last month, there was unanimity on the need for updating air traffic control but discord during discussions regarding funding mechanisms. The Air Transport Association is complaining, loudly, that its commercial airline members pay a disproportionate share of the costs of running the air traffic control system.

Their allegations of inequities hinge on data that show commercial airlines, in aggregate, pay significantly more, on average, per takeoff and landing than does "business aviation," i.e., small corporate aircraft. To the air traffic controllers, says the ATA, a blip is a blip; there is just as much cost to the government to shepherd a small plane as a large one, so per-aircraft fees are fairest.

Its adversary in the debate, the National Business Aviation Association, points out that commercial jet liners are in the air longer and run expensive hubs. But, paradoxically for an association populated primarily by wealthy capitalists, the data suggest they're underlying motivation is rooted in the Marxist maxim, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

The FAA predicts enormous growth in business aviation which will, of course, crowd the skies further. Higher fees to this sector may suppress some of that growth, but it's hardly the solution to overcrowded skies.

There needs to be some real movement toward resolving our air traffic control crisis. The Airbus A380 is coming, and no airline wants to face 500 to 800 passengers who have just spent hours imprisoned on the tarmac together, drawing up precedence-setting lawsuits: the first first-class class action, the first business-class class action and the first economy-class class action.


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