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Originally published November 15, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 15, 2007 at 2:16 PM

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Holidays looming, Bush announcing steps to reduce air travel delays

Ahead of the holiday travel crunch, President Bush has settled on steps intended to reduce air traffic congestion and long delays that have...

AP White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Ahead of the holiday travel crunch, President Bush has settled on steps intended to reduce air traffic congestion and long delays that have left passengers stranded.

The White House said Bush would announce a series of decisions, including action to aid travelers whose flights are canceled or delayed. The Transportation Department has been drafting regulations to increase the bump fees for travelers who buy tickets but wind up without a seat. The department has been considering increasing the fee from $200 to more than $600.

Bush was to announce the action Thursday during a meeting at the White House with Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and Bobby Sturgell, acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.

The airline industry's on-time performance this year has been its worst since comparable data began being collected in 1995. The Transportation Department said last month that 25.2 percent of domestic flights arrived late between January and August.

Domestic carriers are expected to fly roughly 27 million passengers worldwide over 12 days beginning Nov. 16, with planes about 90 percent full, according to the Air Transport Association.

Several airline executives, testifying before the House Transportation Committee Thursday on holiday travel prospects, said they were preparing to care for passengers in the event of weather or air traffic control-related delays.

Jetblue Airways CEO Dave Barger acknowledged that "we let our customers down" last February when hundreds of passengers were stranded on parked JetBlue planes for up to 10 1/2 hours. "In fact, to be candid, we failed them."

He said that with added deicing equipment and crew and expanded customer service personnel, "JetBlue is ready for the holidays."

But Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said there was "some very bad news for people who think there is going to be a quick cure to congestion." He said that even if everything went smoothly, implementation of the next-generation air traffic control system that should reduce disruptions was at least 15 years off.

Bush, on Sept. 27, announced that his administration was looking at ways to reduce air traffic congestion. The president urged Congress to look at legislation to modernize the FAA, and instructed Peters to report back to him quickly about ways to ensure that air passengers are treated appropriately and progress is made to ease congestion.

Peters said at the time she was asking airlines to meet to formulate a plan to improve scheduling at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, one of the nation's busiest. If no solution is found, she said, the department is prepared to issue a scheduling reduction order.

Congestion is not the only problem for air travelers.

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A report made public Wednesday said government investigators smuggled liquid explosives and detonators past airport security, exposing a dangerous hole in the nation's ability to keep these forbidden items off of airplanes.

The investigators learned about the components to make an improvised explosive device and an improvised incendiary device on the Internet and purchased the parts at local stores, said the report by the Government Accountability Office. Investigators were able to purchase the components for the two devices for under $150, and they studied the published guidelines for screening to determine how to conceal the prohibited items as they went through checkpoint security.

At the end of the testing, investigators concluded that terrorists could use publicly available information and a few cheaply available supplies to damage an airplane and threaten passenger safety.

The covert tests were conducted at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints at 19 airports in March, May and June of this year. The GAO did not identify the airports.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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