Airlines find new airports to absorb expected '80s growth

By , Staff Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Are the nation's airports ready for twofold increase in air travelers expected during the 1980s? Handful of big-city airports, such as Chicago's O'Hare, New York's Kennedy and LaGuardia, and Washington's National, are already operating at close to capacity. Some say they can grow no more. Asked what the possibilities are for expansion of the two New York airports, Ed Franzetti, a spokesman for the New York Metropolitan Regional Airport Authority minces no words: "Absolutely none."

Accordingly, airports in nearby cities -- such as Newark, N.J., (for New York) and Baltimore (for Washington) -- are playing a new and growing role in the airline route picture.

"Our expansion tank is Newark -- we direct any new carriers there," Mr. Franzetti says.

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Similarly, many coast-to-coast air passengers making a midway stop to change planes now are more apt to touch down in Memphis, Kansas City, Denver, or St. Louis than Chicago. For Trans World Airlines, St. Louis has replaced Chicago as the line's busiest route center and base for expansion. Eastern Airlines also moved its western division from Chicago to St. Louis last year.

"A lot of medium-sized hubs in the Midwest are growing," confirms Theana Kastens of the Airport Operators Council International in Washington. "Memphis in many ways is a key -- it's already receiving a lot of overflow from Chicago and is developing as one of the major connecting points."

The Memphis airport recently doubled the number of gates available to airlines for arrivals and departures. United Airlines has since selected Memphis as the hub of its Southern operations and has quadrupled daily departures from that city.Overall passenger traffic at the airport grew 12 percent last year, according to Willard Fletcher, president of the Memphis Shelby County Airport Authority.

While no city wants to lose the economic impact of increased air traffic, passengers on connecting flights are rarely on the ground long enough to make much of an economic difference.

Until recently, connecting passengers at Chicago's O'Hare Airport accounted for 60 percent of all traffic. Now it's closer to 50 percent, and "we hope to bring it down even further," says Robert Sampson, United Airlines vice-president and head of the Airline Industry Advisory Committee overseeing O'Hare future development.

The loss of connecting passengers may be Chicago's gain. But international passengers here have been increasing at twice the rate of domestic travelers, and local business and government leaders are eager to do all they can to increase the city's stature as an international trade center.

Indeed, O'Hare, focus of a number of master plan development studies, is in an enviable position among big-city airports: It may be able to expand its capacity for international travelers without enlarging its boundaries. What makes O'Hare different is the military base located on the northeast corner of the field. For years city fathers have talked of relocating the base and building a new international terminal on the site. The present international terminal would be used for domestic flights. Costs of all this rearranging are expected to be steep, but negotiations are moving forward.

Most big-city airports are surrounded by housing on increasingly expensive land and find it impossible to buy up more property other than small parcels on a piece-by-piece basis to extend runways or provide obstacle clearance space.

Some of those whose boundaries are tight are being pressed to cut back air traffic still further for noise-control reasons. Washington's National has been holding public hearings on its proposed plan to draw the line on the number of flights allowed in and out (airport authorities are hoping to bring in wide-bodied jets to accommodate more passengers in the process) and a cutback in evening operating hours. The airport's traffic has been growing at the rate of 7 percent a year, according to spokesman Dave Hess, and authories hope to streamline operations in baggage handling and other areas to better accommodate them.

"There's going to come a time shortly down the road when we just can't handle any more people without making some improvements," Mr. Hess says.

One possibility for expanding the capacity of some airports is to reduce the distance separating runways. Theana Kastens says that Federal Aviation Administration approval would be required but that the current distance requirement could be cut almost in half and still be safe. One other possibility for some busy airports is the stepped-up development of satellite airports in surrounding suburbs and small towns. These would attract some of the smaller general aviation planes, particularly those flown by student pilots, away from the heavy commercial traffic of the major airports.

"Every variable for fine-tuning the system is being considered," insists the Airport Operators Council's Theana Kastens.

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