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Too many flights, too few places to land

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KAI RYSSDAL: Hundreds of flights have been cancelled or delayed across the country today. Airports are closed across the Midwest because of that ice storm. There’s not much you can do when the weather doesn’t cooperate, but sometimes those delays are just because there are too many planes trying to fly to too many places.

Next week the federal government’s expected to announce a plan that might help some. It wants to limit the number of flights in and out of New York’s Kennedy Airport, one of the country’s busiest. The FAA’s thinking about auctioning off landing slots. At the same time the airline industry’s headed to court next week, trying to block a passenger bill of rights that’s supposed to go into effect in the New Year.

Marketplace’s Alisa Roth reports.

ALISA ROTH: To anyone who’s been stuck on a runway for hours, the demands don’t seem unreasonable. The new bill of rights would apply to any plane leaving a New York airport more than three hours late. Airlines would have to provide food, water, electricity and waste removal, or face a fine of $1,000 a passenger. But the Air Transport Association, which represents airlines in the U.S., says air travel’s a federal issue, where states have no jurisdiction.

KATE HANNI: It’s absurd. The ATA is the bully pulpit for the airlines.

Kate Hanni is executive director of the consumer group Coalition for an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights.

HANNI: Unless we take a stand as passengers and allow the states to have rights, we don’t have any. There’s no right for the passenger to sue an airline. There’s no real rights for a passenger in the event of any on-ground delay.

That may be true, but airline analyst Roger King says giving passengers more rights, or punishing airlines for delays, doesn’t address the real problem.

ROGER KING: Too many flights are scheduled for the capacity of the airports at certain times of day, and then when you compound that with a weather situation, and it doesn’t have to be weather at the airport. It can be weather 1,000 miles away that’s blocking the ability of a flight to take off. It’s a very complicated complex system.

The Feds want to make that system simpler by limiting air traffic at JFK. Analyst King says cutting back flights could help airlines because they could charge more. The ATA wouldn’t comment on what it calls a legal issue. First hearing in the case is next Tuesday.

In New York, I’m Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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