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Boston backs down on program to reduce airport congestion

The nation's airports are watching as Boston's Logan International Airport fights to improve air safety and on-time landing records by reducing air congestion. Under pressure from the US Department of Transportation, the airport has suspended its plan to discourage small planes from using the airport. But Massport, the airport's governing agency, vows to fight to reinstate the program.

``We are complying with DOT orders,'' says David W. Davis, executive director of Massport, ``but we shall appeal this ruling in the federal courts.''

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Pilots of small planes and advocates for small city satellite landing fields enthusiastically support Logan's suspension of high prices to small air vehicles for landings and takeoffs. The airport faced a potential loss of $11 million in federal funds if it did not comply with the DOT order.

Massport instituted the pricing policy last July as part of its Program for Airport Capacity Efficiency (PACE). Logan is the 11th busiest US airport.

The outcome of Boston's legal challenge to the DOT order is being watched carefully by others of the US' 25 busiest airports. All are facing a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) challenge to improve their safety records and the landing and takeoff on-time records. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) is also watching what happens in relation to legal actions in federal courts.

Under PACE, Massport raised the basic fee for these lighter planes from $25 to $105 and reduced basic fees of the largest freight and passenger craft from $936 to $451. The old prices were revived Dec. 29 when the PACE pricing system was put on hold.

``We were delighted by the DOT ruling,'' says Patricia Weil, AOPA spokesman. ``We consider this a landmark decision. We are also pleased that Logan has rescinded its new fee schedule. No airport, to my knowledge, has so drastically raised the landing fee levels. We are committed to fight any attempt to make the PACE fee levels a standard for major airports.''

Another group supporting the DOT action is New England Economy Depends on Logan, called NEED Logan. ``What bothers me is that major airlines changed their schedules at Logan and at airports across the country, lengthening the time between landings,'' says Frank Gibson, head of NEED Logan. ``As a result, all airports reported improvement in on-time landings and takeoffs. We say that Logan improved its record because of the new schedules, not because of PACE.''

Satellite airports in New England offered no comments, although they originally feared that PACE would isolate them because of increased prices for commuter lines that use small planes to connect them with Logan.

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``Commuter lines are doing what we predicted,'' says David Davis, executive director of Massport. ``They are using larger planes. They carry more passengers and fly fewer flights.''

Other major airports are making cautious changes such as reducing takeoffs and landings during peak periods.

The FAA, however, announced Dec. 16 a $12.5 million expansion grant for an eight-year construction project at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the nation's third busiest.

The FAA also called on large airlines at four major airports Dec. 20 to prove they make maximum use of their takeoff and landing slots or risk losing them to other carriers. It proposes this rule for Chicago's O'Hare, New York's LaGuardia and Kennedy, and Washington National.

``The PACE plan is working,'' says Theresa McAlpine, Massport spokeswoman. ``DOT figures show we had an 86.4 percent on-time record in September, better than the national average, compared to only 69.5 percent a year ago.''

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