While there are extraordinarily important issues to reckon with–endingthis catastrophic war and devising a sane national security policy,providing universal health care, and repairing the gutted socialcompact–fixing our air travel system may be one of the most potentpolitical issues of our time.

An outdated air traffic control system, flight routes from the 1950’s,and air traffic controllers retiring more quickly than they can bereplaced while the Bush Administration plays hardball on a new contractand imposes work rules— these are just some of the issues that have led to the airline “industry post[ing] its worston-time performance since it began collecting comparable statistics in1995.”

Roughly 25 percent of domestic flights run late. And now–with 27 million passengers expected to travel over Thanksgivingand the public taking matters into its own hands with the air passenger billof rights movement–President Bush has attempted to “solve” the problem with a little sleight-of-hand and a PR effort.

To much fanfare, Bush has opened up restricted military airspace offof the East Coast to create a “Thanksgiving express lane for congested traffic.”

But the Bush Administration fails to mention that opening up militaryairspace is already routine. According to the Washington Post, “Sucharrangements are not new. The FAA coordinates daily with the DefenseDepartment and seeks same-day clearance to use military airspace if, forexample, weather conditions are better in the military’s part of thesky.”

Susan Gurley, executive director of the Association of Corporate TravelExecutives, told the New York Times Bush’s move is like “putting aBand-Aid on a broken arm.” And airline industry forecaster, MichaelBoyd, said, “What’s all this rah-rah about the holiday season? What’schanged? We’re just going to stagger on the way we’ve been doing forthe past year, vulnerable to any glitch in the system, vulnerable to anyweather issues.”

After the collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis I wrote about how our eroding public infrastructure demanded a real public investment agenda (just as I had called for when the levees broke in New Orleans). The antiquated air traffic system is a key partof that agenda. Now the alarms are ringing loudly on that front. Sowhat can be done?

Experts agree that a new satellite-based navigation system is needed to “allow planes to abandon the highway maps and fly freely since a computerized system can check for conflicting flight paths.” Accordingto Boyd, airlines are currently limited to using approximately 3 percentof the sky. But that system–called NextGen for Next Generation AirTransportation System–is expected to cost up to $22 billion (less than two months in Iraq and Afghanistan) and won’t be ready until 2025. Who’s going to pay for it?

What is happening in the air is a microcosm of what’s happening on theground with the hedge funders. When it comes to the air traffic control system, private jet owners “incur 16 percent of the costs but pay only 3 percent.” And just as hedge funders sent their lobbyists to Congress to defeat the effort for a saner tax system, so too are these tourists in corporate jets fighting to hang on to their unjust privilege of using the skies on the cheap.

But even once the navigation system is built, the runways available forarrivals and departures are still limited, and airlines areover-scheduling. A source in the FAA says that airlines will have toeither cut back the number of flights, use larger airplanes instead ofsmaller commuter flights, or serve more regional airports (whichcustomers are often reluctant to use). Raising landing fees might beone way to move in that direction. According to the New York Times, aBoeing 737 landing in Kennedy pays only about $800–“often far lessthat the price of a single full-fare ticket.” (Three-fourths of thechronic delays nationwide are linked to delays at Newark, LaGuardia, and Kennedy.) As for corporate jets, at most airports they don’t pay any landing fee at all, according to the FAA source.

And then there is the labor issue. Recent near midair collisionshave highlighted the staffing shortages and fatigue of our air trafficcontrollers, who have been working without a contract since September2006 under imposed work rules – including lower wages and longer hours -leading many to retire early, and more quickly than they can bereplaced. New hires are therefore often assigned to major metropolitan airports instead of being trained slowly in less trafficked areas. Jeff Richards, president of theNational Air Traffic Controllers Association (NACTA) at the Chicago Center, told the New York Times he has “long been worried about staffing levels and increased workloads.” According to Richards, “These minor infractions are really the calling card of a much bigger problem.” And Patrick Forrey, president of NACTA told NPR, “We haven’t had any major accidents. Well, all the signs are leadingup to the fact that we’re going to.”

Meanwhile, passengers have grown increasingly frustrated and travelhorror stories are commonplace. Kate Hanni, a California real estate agent who was stranded for eight hours on a runway last December, founded the Coalition for Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights that now has 21,000 members.

Among its proposals are: allowing passengers to get off of the planeafter it has been on the tarmac for longer than three hours; refundtickets at 150 percent for bumped passengers or passengers delayed bycancellations or postponements over 12 hours; provide food, water,sanitary facilities, and access to medical attention during delayslasting longer than three hours. Good legislation is pending in the House and Senate though the Bush Administration has offered no support.

“The Administration has still not commented on the passenger bill ofrights legislation that is currently in Congress….” Hanni recentlysaid.

“This would finally guarantee basic rights to the 27 millionpassengers who are expected to fly in the coming days. Opening uplittle-used military air lanes in the northeast is like adding a lane toan exit ramp on I-95 north of Miami…. The fact is that the airlinesmust be compelled to overhaul their scheduling practices, and providetravelers with basic human necessities….”

This issue is waiting to be seized by a political leader who will linkit to our decaying infrastructure and the desperate need for publicinvestment. Let’s hope that we don’t wait for the next disaster beforetaking significant steps towards safety and sanity in our skies.