NEW YORK — FOR many passengers, flying in and out of New York City these days takes longer than it used to. The number of delayed flights in and out of the area's three major airports is sharply up. Together, LaGuardia, Kennedy International, and Newark International airports, the nation's busiest regional complex, handle an average of 2,792 takeoffs and landings a day, or more than 1 million operations a year. Last year the number of flights delayed at each airport - those leaving or arriving more than 15 minutes behind schedule - was well above the 13 percent average increase for the nation as a whole. At LaGuardia alone, delays were up 111 percent.
That upward trend in the New York area has continued this year, though the actual number of landings and takeoffs is down, partly because of the lengthy strike at Eastern Airlines. The number of flights delayed at LaGuardia during a recent five-month period increased 58 percent, for instance, affecting close to one-third of all flight operations, according to William Cahill, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. (The Trump and Pan Am shuttles, both for sale, vie for more customers, Page 8.)
While industry and government officials agree that delays are up, they do not agree on the precise cause, nor on the best solution. Airlines say the passenger inconvenience adds up to a serious situation that warrants remedial action by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
``The New York area now has the greatest delay problem anywhere in the country,'' says Air Transport Association (ATA) president Robert Aaronson.
Changes in both FAA traffic procedures and personnel practices are needed to resolve it, he says. FAA facilities in the New York area, just as those elsewhere around the country, have been short of full-performance-level controllers, those able to perform any needed traffic tasks, since President Reagan dismissed 11,400 FAA employees after an August 1981 walkout.
As part of the solution now in New York, the ATA wants to see more newly hired controllers assigned there, more overtime pay available for controllers, and more training for new controllers so that senior employees are free to manage airline traffic.
FAA spokesman Fred Farrar insists that the delay problem in New York is largely one of too much traffic and occasional bad weather: ``We'd like to see the delays down, too, but they're imposed for safety reasons. You've got an finite amount of air space and you can only get so many planes in that space safely at any given time.''
To get at the actual reasons for the New York delays, and move toward a solution, the Port Authority plans to hire an outside consultant to study the subject.
Delayed flights remain a national problem that could worsen if more answers are not found. Airlines have reduced the problem to some degree by building a comfortable cushion of 15 minutes or more into published arrival times.
Yet the number of passengers and flights nationally continues to rise. By the FAA's own count, some 21 major airports are already ``congested,'' and another 29 are likely to qualify by 2000.
To the degree that the FAA has tried to tackle New York's delay problem, it has done so largely through technology. As part of a long-term modernization program, the agency in 1987 introduced the Expanded East Coast Plan, a major rerouting of flights from Boston to Miami that included layering of air traffic over busier areas to accommodate more planes, more efficiently. ``It has helped some,'' says the FAA's Fred Farrar. Yet many who live beneath the new routes think differently. (See related story below).
``We believe unique efforts are needed to get New York up to speed - the FAA needs to assign it the very highest priority,'' says ATA's Mr. Aaronson. He cites FAA success in easing delay problems at Chicago's O'Hare Airport a year ago as proof that more can be done in New York.
Mr. Farrar says the FAA in Chicago put more limits on landings and takeoffs at certain times.
The ATA also wants to make permanent an experimental, five-year FAA program which pays a 20 percent cost of living bonus to those controllers willing to move to FAA radar facilities near such cities as New York and Chicago.