Picture this scene: The chief executives of the nation's biggest airlines, normally the most bitter of foes, sharing a podium in an atmosphere of cooperation and unity. No bickering, no wagging fingers, no accusations.
Sounds like a pipe dream, right?
But it really happened in Washington, D.C. recently. There they were, the bosses of American, United, Eastern, Delta and Southwest air lines on the same dais, along with high-level representatives of several other carriers.
There also were labor union leaders, aircraft manufacturers, a congressman or two; even the Secretary of Transportation made a cameo appearance. It's just possible that there has never been a meeting quite like it in the history of air transportation.
Usually, mixing a dozen or so competitors will mean a dozen different points of view. These rivals were united by a common enemy, and they couldn't wait to get to the microphone to agree with one another.
The occasion was the first public meeting of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel, a new, broad-based alliance of aviation interests.
The meeting formally began a two-year, $15-million campaign to get the federal government to respond to the needs of the industry and travelers. The partnership hopes to persuade the government to hire more controllers, build more airports, install more up-to-date electronic equipment and restructure the Federal Aviation Administration to allow it to be run by professional managers, not bureaucrats.
Nothing less lofty could have brought Robert Crandall of American, Phil Bakes of Eastern, Stephen Wolf of United, Ronald Allan of Delta and Herb Kelleher of Southwest agreeably together under one roof.
The campaign has an initial budget of $3 million, directed at educating the public to these air needs and urging people to express their views to their elected officials.
The group hopes that pressure from constituents will convince Congress of the need for action to reduce delays and congestion and improve safety in the air.
The areas in which the country needs help, according to the partnership's master plan, fall into the following categories:
--Hire "sufficient" air traffic controllers, put them through improved training courses and offer them cost-of-living differentials to move to the busiest areas.
--Speed up the plan to modernize air-traffic control centers and streamline research and development.
--Build runways and airports, extend some of the present runways and install instrument-landing systems for safer bad-weather operations.
Billions of Dollars
The cost of the partnership's requests is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. But, United's Wolf said: "The cost of doing nothing is unacceptable."
The airlines say they are trying to maintain the highest safety and service levels without reducing flight frequency and capacity.
Skeptics may say that while airlines want to expand the system to meet their schedules, they should be cutting their schedules to fit the existing system.
Over-scheduling is an issue at most major airports across the country. Control problems would be eased if the airlines would work out an acceptable flight-timing program, as they have been asked to do by Congress.
Cutting back on flights would likely be only a temporary, stopgap measure. The airways system must be expanded and improved if it is to continue to cope with market growth.
Looking for Funds
Where will the money come from to pay for an expanded and improved system?
For starters, there is $6 billion in the Aviation Trust Fund, which is meant to be used exclusively for airways improvements.
However, the surplus isn't being used because Congress, in an effort to make the budget deficit look smaller than it really is, keeps the funds in the general coffers, refusing to let the Department of Transportation use it.
The money that has accumulated over the years is primarily from an 8% tax that travelers pay on domestic tickets. Many of the partnership's members are confident that the tax will cover all of the upgrading that it says is needed.
Getting the safe, adequate airways system that's needed isn't going to be cheap. In this instance, though, finding the money hardly seems to be the problem. What is the problem is getting Congress to recognize its obligations and begin utilizing the Aviation Trust Fund for this purpose.
Perhaps this is the only cause that could bring Crandall and Wolf together in peace and persuade Bakes to make a public appearance alongside his sternest critic, Henry Duffy, president of the Air Line Pilots Assn.
At least the Partnership for Improved Air Travel accomplished that much.