We believe the Transportation Department is trying to do the right thing about the New York airport mess and the fallout from the proposed Delta-US Airways slot swap, but we fear that it's gone about it all wrong.

The DOT and the FAA were correct to note that this slot transaction had competitive consequences. As proposed, it would give Delta 49% of the takeoff and landing slots at LaGuardia while giving US Airways 54% of the operations at Washington Reagan National.

That's an unprecedented level of concentration, particularly when these high-demand airports are operating under slot caps that deter competitive entry. Thus, the DOT rightly decided that both carriers should give up some of those slots. The Justice Department agreed.

Where the DOT went astray was in allowing Delta and US Airways to sell the excess slots to other airlines rather than returning them to the government. Opportunists that they are, the two airlines set about to choose their buyers and cut deals to sell the slots to some grateful entrants.

The list includes WestJet, which cannot compete with their domestic networks because it's Canadian, and it excludes Southwest. Delta and US Airways are a lot of things, but they're not stupid.

This situation calls for an auction rather than these private sales. It's one thing for the government to allow the carriers to sell the extra slots; it should not be compounding the error by allowing them to pick their competitors by selling to some airlines but not to others. That's where the Justice Department draws the line, and so do we.

It's bad enough that Delta and US Airways are being permitted to divvy up these two airports. They shouldn't be allowed to fence them off in the process.

These slots represent the right to use the public airspace at particular times and should be redistributed in a process that is open to all carriers, not merely dealt off to "anybody but Southwest."

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