Sky Is the Limit: Why Even Sunny Days Can Ground Airplanes

I don’t typically read the Wall Street Journal (call me a leftist liberal), but its Fridays edition cover page caught my eye: “Why Even Sunny Days Can Ground Airplanes,” the title says. That is a question that’s been on my mind lately as I sit on the tarmac for hours trying to figure out what the problem is (see my recent complaints about a clear-weather cancellation I had on Delta). I have long suspected that the way the airline industry works is about as straightforward and transparent as the healthcare administration in the U.S. (me: leftist liberal).

Back to the story though. On Thursday, President Bush met with Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters to discuss the reasons for air transportation problems: from old air-traffic technology, and the growing number of corporate and regional jets, to labor tensions among traffic controllers, and overscheduling by airlines. The one fundamental shortcoming seems to be obvious: There are too many planes in the air, especially on the East Coast, and the airspace is choked with traffic. Contrary to popular belief, the sky has a limit. Yet, airlines continue to schedule more flights, even while using fewer total aircraft and employees than in the 1990s boom, and they fill their schedules with smaller, regional jets to save on fuel. Plus, there has been a massive rise in small, private-jet travel (200+ passenger jets often wait in queue with 10-person private jets).

Psst! Want to save some money? Check out these great travel secrets.

Of course, the WSJ blamed government regulation for forcing planes to fly on fixed paths that date back to the time when airmail planes flew along cross-country roads they could see from the air. People want to travel fast and airlines want to make money. What do we do about the lack of sky? It’s not an easy fix to get our hands on. You can’t exactly invade countries to get more airspace. Or can you?