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LaHood to create panel to develop airline blueprint

By Joan Lowy
Associated Press / November 13, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said yesterday he will create a special panel to develop a plan to restore health to the ailing airline industry, which is losing billions of dollars, shedding jobs, and facing charges it is using a business model that critics say undermines safety.

LaHood, who made his announcement at the end of a daylong forum on the state of the industry, promised that within a year the panel will produce “a roadmap for the future of the aviation industry.’’

LaHood organized the closed-door forum at the behest of airline unions, which say the industry has become dysfunctional, with the companies, their investors, their employees, and their passengers all suffering.

Airlines were quick to tell the Obama administration what it can do to help - they want the government to pick up the entire tab for a new air traffic control system based on GPS technology instead of World War II-era radar technology.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which has been working on the new system for more than a decade, had already anticipated spending $15 billion to $22 billion on the “NextGen’’ program. But FAA’s plans also call for airlines to shell out an additional $14 billion to $20 billion to install equipment in their planes needed to use the new system.

Since a new system is a national priority that will benefit the entire nation, “it should be paid for by the federal government,’’ the Air Transport Association said yesterday.

Implementing NextGen - which is expected to reduce airport congestion, fuel use, and greenhouse gas emissions - is a priority for the White House, LaHood said. But he offered no clue on additional aid.