WASHINGTON — Civilian airlines will be able to use a special "Thanksgiving express lane" from Maine to Florida, a route normally reserved for military use, as part of President Bush's plan to ease widely anticipated congestion from Wednesday afternoon to Sunday.
Bush's decision was one of a series of steps he announced Thursday to keep people moving through airports and the sky during the upcoming holiday.
"Airports are very crowded, travelers are being stranded and flights are delayed, sometimes with a full load of passengers sitting on the runway for hours," the president said in a nine-minute Roosevelt Room statement after meeting with Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters and other officials.
"We can do better."
The decision to open the military lanes is expected to have the biggest effect on New York area airports. Backups there during bad weather ripple through the nation's air traffic system.
"We believe it (the new system) is going to be able to help us get out of New York quicker for the holiday season," said Nancy B. Kalinowski, acting vice president of systems operations at the Federal Aviation Administration.
She couldn't estimate how many more airplanes could fly, saying "it's going to depend on the weather."
The initiatives are also expected to be in effect for the Christmas holiday season. They include:
- A government-imposed holiday moratorium on all "non-essential" maintenance projects.
- Encouraging airlines to make more staff available to help with check-in and boarding and to set aside extra seats on extra planes.
- Having the Internet provide real-time updates on flight delays.
Military space has been used occasionally in the past for civilian flights, often during inclement weather. Asked why this tactic wasn't employed during previous holiday periods, Peters said, "Since I wasn't here in the past, I can't necessarily speak to that." She's headed the department since September 2006.
Experts praised Bush's steps. The Air Transport Association of America, the airlines' trade group, has predicted a 4 percent year-over-year increase in travel globally on U.S. airlines between Friday and Tuesday, Nov. 27. ATA projects that planes will average about 90 percent full; so far this year, they've been at about 80 percent of capacity.
James C. May, the group's president and chief executive officer, applauded Bush's effort, and ATA's president, David Stempler, agreed, saying he was "gratified."
James L. Gattuso, a senior fellow in regulatory policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center in Washington, summed up the consensus among experts: "It shows some innovative thinking," he said. "It could help."
The initiatives don't address some potential problems — such as unusually bad weather. Should an ice storm cripple crowded areas, Peters conceded, "it probably won't be pretty."
In addition, questions were raised about whether tarmacs, and for that matter airports with limited gates and personnel, could handle a growing stream of flights.
Peters said airports should be ready.
"They're going to have extra rolling stairways. They're going to have extra gates so that they can move people off the plane in the event we get long ground delays," she said.
Looking beyond the holidays, the president also announced new regulations aimed at easing congestion that could be in effect by next summer.
They include doubling the amount of compensation passengers would get if they're bumped off overbooked flights. That would mean someone who waited more than two hours for another flight would get at least $800.
Bush said he'd seek ways to implement "congestion pricing," which would allow higher costs for flights at peak hours or crowded airports.
Federal transportation officials have discussed the idea with New York-area airport representatives and airlines; Bush said he wants a report from Peters on the issue next month.
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