CHICAGO — Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner lashed out Monday at the airline industry and the federal government, claiming they failed to plan for the dramatic growth in air travel that is clogging the nation's major airports.
And Skinner threatened to impose arrival and departure schedules on airlines at crowded major airports if the airlines continue to overtax the air traffic control system. Air traffic has doubled in the past 10 years.
"We can only do so much," Skinner said. "I'm upset that we have to be in a situation in 1989 where we have to put six ounces in a five-ounce bottle because no one strategically planned for this growth."
The surprise attack on the airline industry came as Skinner announced the beginning of a five-year project to pay 20% bonuses to air traffic controllers at 11 facilities in four cities where heavy workloads and high living costs have made it difficult to retain and recruit personnel.
As a result, some controllers in Los Angeles, Oakland, Chicago and New York--the busiest traffic control centers in the nation--will become among the highest paid government employees in the country, Skinner said. The bonuses could push the salaries of some veteran workers past the $70,000-a-year mark and some supervisors could receive in excess of $80,000 a year.
The bonuses are, in part, designed to help the government continue to rebuild the air traffic control system decimated by a 1981 strike that ended when former President Ronald Reagan fired nearly 12,000 union controllers.
In a press conference at the FAA regional headquarters near Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, the transportation secretary also disclosed that:
* The Department of Transportation inspector general is investigating the accuracy of flight delay and flight cancellation reports by all airlines operating in the United States, and that more stringent rules requiring airlines to be honest in announcing and explaining delays and cancellations will soon be in place. Skinner said there will be a system of fines for airlines that are not truthful in reports to passengers.
* United Airline pilots are engaging in a sporadic work slowdown, inconveniencing passengers and contributing to congestion at O'Hare, the world's busiest airport. The airline and its pilots are involved in a contract dispute now in the hands of federal mediators. Safety has not been impaired by the slowdown, the FAA said.
The most critical air traffic congestion in the country is at O'Hare, with 2,300 arrivals and takeoffs a day. Chicago's other facility, Midway Airport, virtually unused 8 years ago, is now also operating at near capacity. Calling expansion at O'Hare "unrealistic," Skinner said the only hope for relieving the problem is to construct a third airport to serve the metropolitan Chicago region.
O'Hare may also be the first airport to face government scheduling of flights. "We still have a delay problem that is unacceptable," Skinner said. "The airlines are going to get an opportunity to work it out themselves. One last chance. If they can't work it out and they schedule too many flights in here and they put too much demand on our people, then we're going to schedule it for them."
"Our schedules are driven by customer demand," said Tim Neale, spokesman for the Air Transport Assn. "That's just a fact of life. We believe you should build a system capable of handling the traffic at the peak hours. The solution is not to force people to fly at times when they don't want to fly but to build a system with appropriate capacity to handle the traffic at peak times."
Noting that not a single new commercial airport has been built in the United States since 1974 , Skinner said the airlines, "rather than complaining about the FAA" must "divert some of that energy, time and money to the development of new facilities not only in Chicago, but all over the country to meet demand. That is the responsible thing to do."
"Airports are built and owned by governments, local and state government or some agency of those governments and to say that the industry did a poor job of planning for the growth, I don't quite understand where he's coming from," said Neale. "We certainly have planned in our purchase of airplanes for growth. There isn't a shortage of airplanes out there. What there is, is a shortage of airports and air traffic control capacity and that is something that we've been harping on for a few years now. Those are essentially only things that the government can correct."