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Yield Independence to Stress Safety, Airline Chief Urges Industry

June 24, 1987|ROBERT E. DALLOS | Times Staff Writer

EVANSTON, Ill. — Robert L. Crandall, chairman of American Airlines, on Tuesday urged that U.S. airlines give up some of the entrepreneurial benefits of deregulation to promote safety and restore the confidence of the traveling public.

He urged the secretary of transportation to establish a committee, headed by the Federal Aviation Administration, to determine how much traffic the nation's air-traffic control system can handle safely.

Crandall, speaking to a conference on transportation deregulation and safety at Northwestern University, said the airlines may have to yield some of "our dedication to the principles of deregulation; even though we are committed to and believe in free market competition, that goal must take a back seat if it conflicts with our foremost priority . . . safety."

In an interview after his speech, Crandall said he was not seeking to restore government regulation to the airline industry. He added that he continues to be steadfast in his support of unfettered competition among the airlines on fares and route selection.

"The time has come to end the quibbling, public and private, about how much capacity can or cannot be handled safely," he said. "We don't have time to bicker any further. The public's confidence in air travel cannot help but be eroded by endless acrimonious debate."

Crandall said the nation's airports handled 415 million passengers in 1986, a number expected to rise to 600 million by 1992: "Unless we act quickly, we could face a nationwide gridlock, with critical shortage of airports and runways."

Crandall said the panel he proposed--to include representatives of all concerned groups--should make a detailed study of how much capacity the air-traffic control system can accommodate safely and with a high level of dependability.

The committee, he said, should be asked to determine just how much traffic the system can handle and how quickly that capacity can be increased. He said the committee should provide a three-year plan by Dec. 31.

Crandall said some of his industry's problems are the results of the 1978 deregulation of the airlines.

"If we are to have optimal safety, for instance, it may not be possible to offer the lowest ticket prices. Safety does not come free, nor even cheap." He added: "Service is deteriorating; complaints are rising; the skies and airports are crowded, and the entire system is creaking as we seek to accommodate the waves of customers brought to our ticket counters by deregulation and cheap fares."

Crandall conceded that his suggestion is inconsistent with the "open skies" principle of deregulation. "No matter who does the allocating (of capacity in air corridors and at airports) or how it is handled," he said, "somebody's going to be unhappy with the results." He added that there will be disagreement with his suggestion that available capacity be sold to the highest bidder--the marketplace would allocate capacity.

"If we want a safe system," he said, "if we want to dead-end the doubt and silence the doom sayers . . . we simply must give somebody the responsibility to determine how much capacity there is and then to allocate it. The collective cost of further delay will be far greater than the cost of the solution."

He said new airports must be built despite protests from local communities. "If we aren't willing to weather the storm, we must accept cutbacks at existing airports and learn to live with the inconvenience that will result."

Asks Release of Funds

He demanded that the federal government release some of the more than $5 billion that has been collected as an 8% surcharge from air travelers, and use it for development and expansion of airports. The money has been going to the federal Treasury.

Transportation Department spokesman Hal Paris said Tuesday that department officials had not seen Crandall's proposal. "It is too early to comment," Paris added from his Washington office.

William W. Hoover, executive vice president-operations of the Air Transport Assn., the industry trade group, said Crandall's suggestions gave the airlines "food for thought." However, he suggested that perhaps the carriers should instead "put pressure on the government to increase capacity."

In an earlier speech at the conference, Sen. Brock Adams (D-Wash.), who was transportation secretary under President Jimmy Carter when deregulation went into effect, complained that the Reagan Administration had rejected regulation, which he said was needed to some extent: "There is a big difference between relaxing and rejecting--and this Administration has rejected regulation."

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