RAA Special Section: Cohen sees opening to ‘fix’ ATC system

 - April 30, 2009, 11:39 AM

Last year’s fourth quarter saw regional airline departures decline 11.6 percent, passenger traffic drop 7.5 percent, total capacity fall 9 percent and block hours drop 13.2 percent. Although the RAA hasn’t yet compiled first-quarter numbers, monthly figures from early this year didn’t raise the spirits of anyone looking for signs of a quick turnaround. But RAA president Roger Cohen exudes an optimism one might expect in the midst of a bull market–not because he expects a return to pre-2008 growth patterns any time soon, but because opportunities abound for some real, substantive progress in areas neglected for too many years.

“We joined with every other aviation alphabet organization in saying this downturn in the economy really has given us great breathing room to begin speeding up the implementation of an improved ATC system,” said Cohen. “That has been a continuing theme RAA has [pressed], because we account for half the flights, and the majority of those on one end is one of the busy connection hubs.”

In fact, at some of the country’s busiest airports, regional airlines account for as many, if not more, arrivals and departures as the majors, making ATC modernization more critical to RAA members than ever before. At New York La Guardia and Philadelphia International, for example, regionals comprise more than 50 percent of flights, said Cohen. At Newark, N.J., they account for 45 percent, at Boston 40 percent and at New York Kennedy 27 percent. “So at some of these critical, busy airports– delay-prone airports–along the East Coast, regional flights are affected as much as, if not more than mainlines,” stressed the RAA president.

For some of those very same reasons, and, of course, the hard work of RAA staffers, the regional industry’s profile in Washington has risen markedly over the past few years–a heartening development for Cohen. “I think the fact that the FAA and the DOT and most certainly Congress seek our input and seek our guidance means we’ve earned a full seat at the table as part of all these deliberations,” he said.

Cohen did admit to some disappointment, however, that the Obama Administration’s stimulus bill did not explicitly include funding of so-called NextGen technology development.

“I think there was an opportunity missed when the stimulus package didn’t help jump-start aviation, because I think there was a real effort; everybody was coalesced behind that,” said Cohen. “That would have been a really great building block for the future of this industry, and brought some of this stuff to market that much faster, so we’re disappointed in that.”

Cohen said that the industry finds itself in an unwinnable situation as it cuts capacity and less traffic leads to fewer delays. “I think this industry gets screwed no matter what,” he said bluntly. “If [congestion is] a front-page item, we get slot auctions and everybody complaining about airline delays, and when we work to solve them, either because of fewer flights or because everyone’s doing a better job, then it takes off the pressure and we miss another opportunity to fix the system.”

Nevertheless, Cohen expressed enthusiasm about the direction the new Administration appears headed on issues such as Essential Air Service funding and congestion pricing, for example. In fact, the Obama budget proposal for FY2010 refers to the importance of maintaining service to small communities, he said. “A fundamental tenet of ours is that Congress does protect and maintain the EAS promise,” said Cohen. “Congress has always recognized it, and we believe that this Administration is much more open in recognizing that than its predecessor was.”

Another positive sign surfaced as the FAA “punted” when it came time to file briefs to contest a U.S. Court of Appeals decision to halt slot auctions at the three major New York area airports. “This Administration has listened to Congress, listened to the industry and saw that [the plan] was just crazy,” he said.

Cohen reserved his most effusive praise for the Administration’s nomination of former ALPA president Randy Babbitt as FAA Administrator. “I’ve known Randy Babbitt for years, and he’s not the best choice for the job; he’s the perfect choice,” he said.

So, all in all, as the RAA prepared for a convention in Salt Lake City that could eclipse the size of last year’s in Indianapolis–exhibitor registration in early April looked as strong as one could have hoped in this economy–Cohen saw more reasons for optimism than gloom. “We were able to see that the economy was going to be an overriding concern; and so we planned for that and I can tell you now that we are incredibly gratified about the success that the convention is going to have,” he said. “We actually had to expand the exhibit hall.” New features at this year’s convention will include a section dedicated to airports–a so-called Airport Alley–and the association’s first “Green Pavilion,” dedicated to environmentally friendly goods and services.