've averaged one roundtrip flight per week since Sept. 11, so I've got a pretty good handle on how the situation at airports has evolved since then.

Early on, it was a zoo, and highly unpredictable -- one really did need to get to an airport two hours ahead of time to be certain of getting on board.

But lately, even with the increased likelihood that one's shoes will be X-rayed, the system seems to have adjusted, and I've been leaving later and later to get to the airport.

I recently got an e-newsletter from American Airlines that suggested I arrive just one hour before domestic departures, the pre-Sept. 11 "normal" recommendation.

So things are getting back to normal. Is that good or bad? On the same day the e-newsletter arrived, Don Carty, president of American Airlines, warned that "once customer demand returns to pre-9/11 levels -- and it will -- we will find ourselves once again headed for gridlock."

Every day, Travel Weekly receives news from airlines that are restoring routes cut after Sept. 11. I can well remember air traffic from six months ago, and as things return to full capacity, we'll have all the hassles of an overloaded system plus the newer, increased security measures.

For some insight into why we're in this mess, let's turn to Romania and the Zega family.

I first met the Zegas in February 1991, when I went to newly free eastern Europe to assess how the political changes would affect travel in that region.

One change was that citizens felt free to talk with foreigners, and during a flight layover, I was invited to join a table of air traffic control students in an airport cafeteria.

We had a far-ranging discussion, and one of them invited me to meet his family once we touched down in Costanta on the Black Sea coast. It turned out that his sister and brother-in-law were also air traffic controllers. Their hospitality was endless, and I've stayed in touch, twice playing host to them in the U.S.

On their first visit, in 1993, I arranged for them to tour an air traffic control tower in Austin, Texas. They were impressed with the technology.

On their second visit, in 1997, they expressed little interest in seeing the U.S. systems again. "We know what they have, and Romania's is now much more sophisticated."

I asked them how that could be.

"Most of the world's air traffic control systems are more sophisticated than that of the U.S.," Adrian Zega said. "The problem is that, within a country, the system has to be coordinated. You can't have half a country on an old system and half on a new.

"For a European-sized country, this is not a big problem -- changing over to a more sophisticated system is manageable. But for a system the size of the U.S., it is a huge, complex problem. They can't get it figured out."

If he's right, we're stuck with outdated technology. There are, of course, infrastructure problems other than technology that contribute to gridlock.

Additional aspects (number of runways, available gate space, etc.) of many U.S. airports are inadequate and unable to handle "normal" traffic loads.

It's ironic that our nation's size, so often a tremendous benefit to the U.S., is working against us. And that countries we would consider as still "developing" have an air traffic system superior to ours.

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