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Wednesday, 6 June, 2001, 12:40 GMT 13:40 UK
Facing the airport overcrowding challenge
Planes queuing at Heathrow Airport
The availability of landing space is a huge problem for the airline industry
Europe's transport industry needs a shake-up. The BBC's Rodney Smith examines whether the French way leads to the future.

It is a strange time to be French.

Vision of Europe, not quite in step with your biggest partner Germany, nor anyone else. Slightly isolated by American shareholders, who turn down a bid approach by your main and highly regarded telecoms equipment maker, Alcatel.

Even jaundiced analysts think that would have been a good deal.

But you go on and show the world that even old technologies such as railways have a new life as your (government-funded) high-speed train breaks land speed records.

Competitive nations

The French are as keen as ever to persuade the rest of the world that they are better than anyone else at most things.

They produce some of the most innovative car designs - the people carrier (Renault Espace), its mini-MPV successor (Renault Megane Scenic), and now they may also be about to teach us all, and the US in particular, a further trick or two about travel.

While Europe and the US have airspace aplenty - no one has very much airport space.

Air travel is being limited by the availability of landing space.

Negotiating landing space

Virgin Atlantic plane over San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge
Overcrowding at airports is particularly acute in the US

The problem is especially acute in the United States, where the number of flight delays caused by overcrowding at airports has increased by nearly 50% over the past two years.

That is unlikely to improve soon - the number of passengers flying in the US has also grown by 50% in the past decade, with no sign of a letup.

Americans have adopted air travel as the natural means for any journey over, say, half an hour.

This makes sense in a country where deregulation has forced down airline seat prices to levels that compete, over distance, with the cost of terrestrial transport.

Now Americans are starting to ask if too many people are taking to the air.

Some major airports - Detroit, Atlanta - are planning new runways. Others are spreading the load, pushing traffic onto smaller local airports.

But this will not cope with expected passenger growth from 655 million last year to one billion by 2010 - just short of the population of China or India.

Familiar problems

Europe has similar air space problems - the effects are felt particularly strongly at London's Heathrow, where the planned Terminal Five will be waved through by the incoming government as soon after the 7 June election as is practicable.

Paris's Charles De Gaulle and Frankfurt airport are building new runways. But this is tinkering with the problem. Larger aircraft such as Airbus' A380 will help - but land travel needs to take up some of the burden.

Cue French ingenuity.

The Germans are again experimenting with trackless, magnetic induction engines to drive a new train technology - Britain led with this until the bright, shiny and industrial efficient Thatcher government killed it in 1979.

The German system would anyway require huge adjustments to rail infrastructure.

The French are using the TGV to promote the benefits of land travel

The French are using what they have - their Train de Grande Vitesse, the record-breaking TGV, to show that land travel can be fast and comfortable.

Some say they are following where Japan's Shinkansen "Bullet Train" has shown the way.

No matter - both have the technology that could help solve some of America, and Europe's, future transport problems.

But Americans may have to go back more than a century first, and learn to love the train if they are to open up the West all over again.

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