"We've got to get out of this business."

It was a relief to hear that from a Transportation Department official a while ago as the DOT proposed to stop allocating takeoff and landing slots at a handful of major airports. We applaud when any government gets out of the business of telling any airline where, or when, it can't fly.

The practice of allocating airport time slots originated in 1969, when the FAA imposed quotas on takeoffs and landings to ease congestion and controller workloads at a few "high-density airports." The rule survives at Washington National, O'Hare, LaGuardia, and -- for five hours a day -- Kennedy.

It was a simple solution for 1969, but after deregulation, upstart airlines found that the right to serve "any" route didn't include key airports where the big guys had all the slots. Economists in the Reagan era sold the DOT on the "market solution" that airlines should be allowed to sell or trade their slots to the highest bidder, which some of them did.

Airlines have paid each other as much as a million bucks for a slot. They rent them out. Small towns desperate for air service tried to buy them as bait. What began as an air-traffic-control exercise is snarled by economics and politics, which is what happens when you try to run a business under a quota system.

Now the DOT finds itself besieged by politicians to create new slots for new entrants, or to uncreate them for localities that don't want any more aircraft noise. No wonder it wants to close the store.

At last, it has dawned on the DOT that if Atlanta, the busiest airport in the world, can do without a federal slot system, the same could be true for O'Hare, LaGuardia and Kennedy.

Left out was Washington National, but, to modify a good line from a bad movie ("Mars Attacks"), "Three out of four ain't bad."

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