(Recasts with airlines threatening to file suit)
By John Crawley
WASHINGTON Aug 5 U.S. airlines threatened on
Tuesday to sue the Bush administration over its plan to cut
delays at one of the nation's most congested airports even as
new data shows over a quarter of all flights are late.
The Air Transport Association, the lead trade group for
major carriers, said in a statement that the U.S.
Transportation Department proposal to auction landing slots at
New Jersey's Newark airport is unlawful and widely opposed.
"DOT has left us no options - we will sue to prevent this
illegal action," James May, the trade association's chief
Relations between airlines and transportation planners have
deteriorated sharply over the past several months as government
efforts to reduce delays have clashed with carriers losing
altitude financially due to record high fuel prices.
"The timing is incredible -- in the middle of an enormous
financial crisis that is reshaping the industry," said Giovanni
Bisignani, director general of the trade group representing
overseas carriers, the International Air Transport
The Transportation Department proposed on Tuesday
auctioning unused rights for one round-trip flight at Newark to
gauge interest and determine their value.
The auction decision came hours after the agency released
its latest industry on-time figures showing delays remained
stubbornly high in the first half of 2008 even though
operations and travel demand were both down.
The on-time rating of 73.3 percent was just slightly better
than the record low 72.6 percent in the first half of last
year, even though operations contracted due to record fuel
prices and bankruptcies. Several small airlines ceased
operations this year.
Airlines flew 3.6 million flights carrying 303 million
passengers in the January-June period, compared with 3.7
million flights and 309 million passengers a year earlier.
New York's LaGuardia Airport had the worst on-time arrival
performance of the 32 busiest airports, while Chicago's O'Hare
was last for timely departures. Both airports are notoriously
congested and often rank at or near the bottom in performance
Newark ranked next to last in on-time arrival
performance, only ahead of LaGuardia.
Transportation Secretary Mary Peters has long championed
"market-based" mechanisms for reducing congestion. She believes
forcing airlines to bid for slots for the busiest times of day
would prompt airlines to rethink their operations, perhaps
using bigger planes.
"Such measures have been very successful at managing
congestion in other transportation modes and can provide strong
incentives for more efficient use of a strained resource, like
New York-area airports," Peters said. The auction is planned
for Sept. 3.
On Monday, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey,
which operates JFK, Newark and LaGuardia airports, said it
would not recognize slot auctions on grounds they would hurt
business and reduce service to small communities.
Transportation officials believe they have the legal
authority to move forward unless Congress steps in and acts on
pending legislation to block the move when lawmakers return in
Democrat Patty Murray and Republican Christopher Bond, the
chairman and ranking member respectively of the Senate
Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, told Peters in a
letter on Tuesday to wait for "clear authority" from Congress.
"There is no question that your insistence on moving
forward (with) these controversial efforts will subject the
department and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) to
extensive and costly litigation that will benefit nether the
taxpayer nor the traveler," they wrote.
Murray and Bond also are unhappy that Peters has diverted
"millions in FAA operating funds" to administer the auction.
Airline shares shrugged off yet more bad news about delays,
rising sharply Tuesday on lower oil prices. The Amex Airline
Index .XAL rose 9.6 percent.
(Reporting by John Crawley; editing by Tim Dobbyn)