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Bush hopes to ease holiday travel congestion

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  • NEW: Air traffic controllers' union says announcement is "all show"
  • Military airspace will be opened to commercial flights during the holidays
  • Measures aimed at easing congestion during peak travel times
  • In January, the FAA will auction flight slots at New York airports to target delays
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Corridors of military airspace will be temporarily opened to commercial airliners during the holiday season in an effort to alleviate heavy traffic, President Bush announced Tuesday.

The airspace, which the White House dubbed "Thanksgiving express lanes," will be available in several regions of the United States, expanding on what was opened last year, Bush said.

Last year, thousands of square miles of East Coast airspace usually reserved for the military was made available for five busy travel days during Thanksgiving week.

This year, additional travel lanes will be opened in the Midwest, the Southwest and the West, Bush said.

"I know a lot of folks in our country think about transportation a lot, particularly this time of year," the president said. "And a lot of our citizens are nervous about travel. They're not nervous about their safety, but they're nervous about what their experience will be like: long delays, lost bags, overbooking of flights. ... They're saying, 'Will traveling home for the holidays be "It's a Wonderful Life"? Or will it be "The Nightmare Before Christmas"?' " Bush said.

The president praised last year's efforts to curb flight congestion, saying the Thanksgiving express lanes "worked."

However, a spokesman for a union that represents air traffic controllers, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said Tuesday's announcement was "all show."

"This administration is putting a fresh new red bow on last year's holiday box. There's just nothing inside. It's empty," Doug Church said of the president's announcement.

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He pointed to the Monday and Tuesday ahead of Thanksgiving last year -- November 19 and 20, 2007. Both saw increased delays over 2006, likely because of storms and low ceilings from Chicago, Illinois, to the East Coast.

"Weather is the great equalizer in the air traffic control system," Church said. "That's another reason we shouldn't be paying attention to today's announcement. It's all show. There's no substance."

After Thanksgiving, when the weather cleared, the delays in 2007 dropped or were comparable to those in 2006, Federal Aviation Administration figures show.

"Feedback from the airlines last year indicated they were very grateful the military airspace was available -- it allowed them to fly more direct routes and save time and fuel," FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said.

In addition to the Thanksgiving express lanes, efforts are under way with the FAA and the Transportation Security Administration to make more staff available at airports during the holiday season, which will speed up check-ins and boarding, Bush said.

Also on Tuesday, Bush lauded his administration's efforts to cut down on flight congestion, particularly at New York's major airports -- LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy and Newark Liberty.

"To untangle the skies over New York, we've improved our traffic control, we added a new departure route from the metro area, and capped the total number of flights," he said.

In addition, some $90 million will be spent on improving taxiways at Kennedy airport, he said.

In January, the FAA will begin auctioning takeoff and landing slots at major New York airports, Bush said. The government hopes auctioning the slots will reduce delays by spreading out flights to off-peak times. Bush said he was hopeful the move would also increase competition between airlines.

"We strongly believe increased competition will help lower fares to consumers," he said.

Outside of New York, three runways were opening this week at other major airports: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Washington Dulles International Airport and Chicago O'Hare International Airport.

Furthermore, Bush said he was signing an executive order Tuesday that would make modernizing the aviation system a "priority" for federal agencies. "Modernizing our aviation system is an urgent challenge," he said.

CNN's Mike Ahlers and Kathleen Koch contributed to this report.

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