In the midst of thousands of flight cancellations and the turmoil that engulfed New York City’s two major airports last week, new developments unfolded. One change was denounced, another celebrated and a third sparked mixed reactions.
To ease delays at LaGuardia Airport, the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration have proposed a controversial plan to reduce the number of arriving and departing flights. Cutting 2 percent of flights and selling a large portion of daily flight slots would deliver relief, according to the agencies. But the proposal met with strong opposition from the nation's airlines, Gov. David Paterson, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airports.
Auctioning time slots to the airlines will create more chaos and impose a greater burden on travelers, foes said. Paterson worried the flight caps would deliver a blow to the state's business and tourism sectors, and, as a result, New York's economy.
The highest bidding airline would win the slot, reduce flight choices, charge passengers more to fly and cut service to small cities. It would likely cause passengers to be involuntarily bumped from flights, but a DOT “bumping rule” would guarantee those people compensation.
This “short-sighted” and “woefully misguided” plan does not address the real problem, opponents said. They want the federal agencies to update the 1950s-era air traffic control system and equipment, and boost the inadequate number of air traffic controllers.
“The right solutions are increasing capacity, rationalizing airline schedules and improving customer service,” the Port Authority said.
It also called on the FAA to enact more than 100 recommendations made by the Flight Delay Task Force.
One such recommendation the FAA is implementing will open a new westbound traffic lane in the sky.
In its own move to accommodate travelers, the Port Authority will soon open a new prayer room for Sikhs passing through Kennedy International Airport. This announcement was welcomed by members of the Sikh community, which is rapidly growing in Queens.
The Sikh Cultural Society, based in Richmond Hill, and the United Sikhs said they were pleased that the Port Authority recognized the need for a prayer facility.
Kennedy International Airport's Terminal 4 has several prayer rooms that serve Catholics, Protestants and Jews. It also houses a multi-faith worship space, which will be partitioned in order to serve Sikh travelers.
Based on the 2000 census, Queens had the second largest Sikh population after California. Richmond Hill was said to have the largest population of Sikhs from the Indian state of Punjab, according to a 2002 New York Times article.
Another new addition to Kennedy International Airport comes in the form of millimeter wave imaging technology — body scanners that allow security screeners to see beneath passengers' clothes in order to detect concealed weapons.
The Transportation Security Administration announced the pilot project last Thursday, garnering some attention and mixed reviews. “The security value is just out of proportion to the cost of these scanners and the amount of dignity and privacy they require people to give up,” said a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union.
“If we really wanted to be secure, we can all fly naked,” spokesman Jay Stanley added. “But I think most Americans would probably not regard that as a good tradeoff between the initial security they would get for how much dignity they would be giving up. And our view is that this technology is the same way.”
TSA officials insisted that the system comes with privacy protections: officers reviewing the images sit in an area separated from travelers, never interacting with or seeing them; images are not recorded or stored; and passengers' faces are blurred to protect their identities.
But the ACLU is still concerned the images will eventually end up on the Internet. “The government does not have a very good record of protecting personal information of individuals,” Stanley said, recalling the incidents in which the presidential candidates' passport files were accessed without authorization.
“When these things are first introduced, they're always introduced very carefully,” he added. “The question is how long are all these protections going to last?”
Currently, the scans are voluntary: passengers selected for secondary screenings can choose between getting scanned or undergoing a physical pat-down.
The TSA said the scanners pose no health risk, as they use low-energy electromagnetic waves to produce the computerized images of travelers bodies. According to published reports, they project 10,000 times less energy than a cell phone transmission.
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