O’Hare restrictions suppress independence

 - March 22, 2007, 7:12 AM

Independence Air’s designs on developing a Midwestern outpost for new discount-fare flights could suffer a serious blow if regulators follow through with proposed new slot restrictions at Chicago O’Hare Airport. During a meeting last month in Washington with executives from 16 passenger and cargo airlines, DOT Secretary Norman Mineta promised to “do something about this [congestion] problem right here and now,” whether or not all the airlines volunteered to cut flight frequencies during peak hours.

During last month’s meetings FAA Administrator Marion Blakey asked the carriers to cut more than 60 flights, limit arrivals to a maximum of 86 landings per hour between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. and shift some flights to less busy periods.

Independence, which now operates 12 flights into and out of the Midwest gateway, has resisted, blaming American and United Airlines for the delays and insinuating that the two dominant carriers have lobbied for local political pressure to block competition from low-fare competitors.

In July Rep. William Lipinski (D-Ill.) called for a Congressional hearing to argue his case against Independence Air’s new peak-hour flights at O’Hare. In a letter to subcommittee chairman Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), Lipinski placed much of the blame for the congestion problem on the growing presence of 50-seat RJs and Independence’s insistence on flying the airplanes from Chicago during times that American and United Airlines voluntarily pared their schedules.

Independence claims it originally planned 16 flights a day into O’Hare but chose to limit its service to 12 flights as a good-will gesture. Together, United and American have so far cut 7.5 percent of their flights from the airport. Today O’Hare hosts between roughly 80 and 100 takeoffs and landings per hour. In addition to capping total hourly flight frequencies to 86, the FAA has proposed limiting movements to 22 during any 15-minute stretch between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. Over the past 10 months some 32 percent of all flights into O’Hare arrived at least 15 minutes late, and a third of those arrived more than an hour behind schedule.

The DOT lifted slot restrictions at O’Hare in 2002 immediately after Congress passed the last five-year FAA reauthorization bill known as AIR-21.