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Jana Wilson
School of Public and Environmental Affairs

Steve Hinnefeld
University Communications

Clinton V. Oster Jr.
School of Public and Environmental Affairs

Indiana University professor: Bush proposal unlikely to reduce airline delays

Airlines expert also comments on recent air safety issues

NOV. 16, 2007

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- President Bush's decision to let commercial airlines make more use of military air space is unlikely to produce fewer delays in the Thanksgiving travel season, says an Indiana University expert on airline travel and safety. Clinton V. Oster Jr., a professor at IU Bloomington in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, also said the topics of recent news reports on airline safety -- including a near mid-air collision around Chicago and a NASA survey of airline and general aviation pilots -- were neither surprising nor particularly alarming.

Military air space for commercial flights. President Bush said Thursday that commercial airlines would be allowed to route flights through areas off the Atlantic coast normally used for military exercises from Nov. 21 through Nov. 25. The president said the announcement was part of a plan to "bring order to America's skies."

Oster said: "It might help provide more options to route aircraft around bad weather, but otherwise it won't make much difference. The East Coast congestion problem involving New York is more a problem of inadequate runway space at the New York airports and airspace congestion in the area surrounding the airport (the terminal area) than it is congestion in the en route airspace between New York and Florida."

Near collision over northern Indiana. On Tuesday, two airliners carrying dozens of people reportedly came within 600 vertical feet of each other over northern Indiana. The near-collision resulted from an error by an air traffic controller at the Chicago Center in Aurora, Ill., media reports said.

"The near mid-air collision around Chicago is not particularly surprising," Oster said. "The airspace is congested, and controllers will make mistakes from time to time. I think it's more a situation of this incident illustrating the value of having redundant systems, such as onboard collision avoidance systems. Such redundancy is designed into our air traffic control systems for just these sorts of occurrences."

NASA pilot survey. Last month, airline safety questions were sparked when NASA rejected an Associated Press request for data from a survey of thousands of pilots about safety. The agency later agreed to provide the data, but said it could take up to a year to go through the information and protect pilots' confidentiality.

Oster said NASA created a perception problem by withholding the data. "The puzzle to me is why someone in NASA tried to suppress the information," he said. "From what I've read about the data, it doesn't seem to be particularly surprising or alarming. For example, survey data on near midair collisions is notoriously unreliable, because pilots don't have much (or hopefully any) experience estimating how close they are to another plane, particularly when they are surprised by that plane and are trying to avoid it. Pilots have a tendency to think it was closer than the radar showed that it really was. So I would interpret the NASA data as less reliable. But once someone tried to withhold it, people tended to give it more credibility than it really deserved. Had NASA not withheld the data, a few reporters would have gotten it and started to write a few stories. In the course of writing those stories, they would likely have found some experienced folks who would have cast doubt on the validity of the data and would have mentioned it in their stories. That would have been a quiet end for the issue."

Oster's research includes air traffic management and aviation infrastructure, aviation safety and airline economics. His most recent book is Managing the Skies: Public Policy, Organization, and Financing of Air Navigation, co-written with John S. Strong, and forthcoming from Ashgate Press. He is co-author of four other books on airline safety and economics, including Why Airplanes Crash: Aviation Safety in a Changing World.

Reporters may contact Oster at 812-855-5058 or