FINGER-POINTING

FINGER-POINTING

There was plenty of dodging and weaving at a congressional hearing last week on air-travel delays. It seemed as if some speakers spent almost as much effort trying to spread the blame for the dismaying situation as they did in offering explanations and plans for it.

The trade association for U.S. airlines focused on immediate problems and largely blamed the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA tried to take a broader and longer view, but made sure to cite the weather and airline scheduling as big parts of the problem. The air-traffic controllers union flat-out blamed the airlines. No group held out to the weary traveling public the hope of anything more than painfully slow progress.Meanwhile, however, another approach - a fundamental change in course that offers real hope for lasting improvement of American air travel - was barely touched on. If nothing else, last week's hearing underlined the need to put back on the front burner the notion of turning air-traffic control over to a federally owned corporation.

While safety isn't in danger - yet - no one disputes the sorry and worsening discrepancies between air-travel schedules and air-travel reality in the United States. Nor is there any doubt that the number of air travelers will continue to increase, further burdening an over-stressed system.

Growing even more rapidly than passenger volume is passenger dissatisfaction. Air travel today, its glamorous advertisements to the contrary, is a form of mass transit. Passengers are quick to take advantage of the lower ticket prices that two decades of deregulation have produced. But they grit their teeth when the time comes to use their tickets. Big crowds, endless lines, indifferent employees, luggage problems and the like make air travel a grim and high-pressure experience. Flight delays exacerbate the problem.

And flight delays have reached record proportions. The Air Transport Association, in a report that cites FAA data, said this summer was the most delay-plagued season in history; delays in July were up 76 percent over those in July 1998. The number of aircraft delayed daily so far this year is 1,291, it added, compared with 948 last year and 737 in 1997. The cost of delays this year was $4.5 billion.

The ATA, speaking for the nation's major airlines, pinned the blame on the FAA for ''an inefficient and outdated air-traffic control system, coupled with inadequate management of that system.'' It said a major problem is the agency's uncoordinated and unrealistic way of dealing with bad weather, and that delays were worsened by the agency's difficulties in making the transition to new traffic-control equipment.

Moreover, passenger volume will increase by 43 percent over the next decade, the ATA said - and delays will go up 250 percent ''if the air-traffic control system is not fixed.''

The FAA acknowledged that equipment problems, as well as a wave of bad weather, caused serious flight delays this summer. It also admitted that its approach to air-traffic control until very recently focused too heavily on local operations and issues rather that system-wide operations and issues.

The FAA said that, with the ATA and the controllers union, it has just conducted an evaluation of national-system operations, and is moving to implement improvements. Its national Command Center will play a greater role in policy, operations oversight and communication, and there will be greater collaboration between air-traffic managers and airline operations offices. The FAA said it will do whatever it can to improve efficiency, as long as safety is not compromised.

But Aviation Administrator Jane F. Garvey also warned that the air-travel picture is complex and there are major challenges ahead. Airport capacity and airline scheduling are beyond the FAA's control. (Airlines are overloading the system, similar to ''trying to cram 10 pounds of sand in a five-pound bag,'' is how an official of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association put it.) Hard choices will have to be made at all levels of government to ensure capacity meets demand, she said.

Ms. Garvey barely touched on the idea of semi-privatizing air-traffic control, concentrating instead on three principles the Clinton administration sees as central to any serious reform of the system: businesslike management, cost-based pricing and budget reform.

But the corporation idea - endorsed by the Clinton, Bush and Reagan administrations - is simple. Keep strict oversight of safety with the FAA, but turn air-traffic control over to a government-owned corporation. Such a corporation would be able to raise the funds it needs in bond markets, just as many port agencies do. Its managers would have the flexibility to tailor system operations to user needs. The move would keep politics farther away from the system. But it would add the very important ingredient of accountability - there would be an entity that would actually be held responsible.

It's a radical departure from the way air-traffic control has been handled since the airlines turned it over to the government 63 years ago. But the challenges are huge, and they're not getting smaller. More than finger-pointing is needed.