Beware Of Overcrowded Skies

The skies are teeming with more planes than ever, causing an overloading of air traffic control systems and airport infrastructure that has the industry poised at the edge of crisis, according to the head of the world's largest airline.

A victim of its own booming success, the airline industry is bogged down in an overcrowding problem it urgently needs to resolve, United Airlines chief James Goodwin told an international aviation conference.

"The skies are crowded and getting more so every day," Goodwin said. Unless something is done soon, he said, severe delays will soon become business as usual, creating backlogs with serious or even catastrophic implications.

His sobering message Monday night sounded a rare warning note at a conference at which U.S. transportation officials and industry leaders spent much time toasting aviation's breathtaking growth and technological progress.

The gathering of officials from more than 90 countries as well as top executives of the world's biggest airlines concludes Tuesday.

NASA administrator Daniel Goldin gave an upbeat forecast of the near future of world aviation. He said the space agency is developing technology to give pilots clear vision regardless of darkness or bad weather, detect turbulence earlier, increase air traffic capacity by 50 percent and reduce noise and air emissions.

But many of the American officials said that to retain the industry's momentum, international flying restrictions must be reduced.

That's the cause President Franklin D. Roosevelt espoused in vain at the last international aviation conference, 55 years ago in the same Chicago hotel.

Goodwin, whose airline is based in nearby Elk Grove Village, Ill., reeled off evidence to back up his contention that air traffic control systems are inadequate and airline infrastructure is "bursting at the seams."

Air traffic over Europe, where a third of all flights are delayed, grew 43 percent from 1990-98, he said. Worldwide, there are 70,000 commercial flights a day.

Boeing chairman and chief executive Philip Condit Tuesday echoed the concern about crowded skies, noting that in the next 16 years, both the world aircraft fleet and the number of passengers -- currently 1.5 billion annually -- will double.

In the United States, a recent Air Transport Association report described the Federal Aviation Administration's system as "broken."

"While aviation technology allows us to offer our customers new standards in safety, speed, comfort and reliability, the air traffic control systems that guide and control them have not kept pace," Goodwin said.

There also is a lack of runway space and terminals to accommodate the recent surge of passengers. By 2012, takeoffs and landings will increase 30 percent to 35 million annually and the number of passengers, now 680 million, will top 1 billion.

If significant infrastructure expansion isn't begun now, a third of the 100 argest U.S. airports will have more than 20,000 hours of delays, Goodwin said. The hours lost to delays overall will triple in the next 10 years and delays will cost U.S. fliers $4.5 billion annually.

Goodwin said airspace, particularly in delay-prone Europe, must be managed as a single unit, unconstrained by national borders.

But the reality is that national interests are continuing to stymie efforts to lift more restrictions and nail down a global accord.

"Too many countries persist in a determination to run their own airspace -- a concept that is simply not suited to an interconnected, interdependent world," the United Airlines chief said.