U.S. plan to ease air congestion runs into head winds

Some critics say a proposed cap on New York flights would raise costs. Others say better traffic management is the key.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

An ideological dogfight is under way about the skies over New York and how best to ease the congestion at the region's three major airports.

Its outcome will affect millions of American fliers – because half of all delays in the country from Chicago to Dallas to Los Angeles originate over the Big Apple. At issue is whether the Department of Transportation's proposal to cap the number of flights at each airport and then auction off landing slots to airlines would end up reducing costs and congestion – or increasing them.

In Washington this week, the battle heated up during a contentious session at a hearing on Capitol Hill.

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New York's senior senator, Charles Schumer (D), minced no words, telling the House Transportation Committee's Aviation Subcommittee that the government's plans were "hare-brained" – nothing more than "untested market-based ivory tower ideas" that will make things far worse. The Department of Transportation (DOT) shot back that Senator Schumer was more interested in "obstructing" efforts to cut delays than in modernizing the nation's antiquated air traffic system.

But some aviation analysts worry that both sides are failing to recognize a solution that could almost immediately ease aviation traffic jams.

"It's a case of misplaced aggression because they're arguing at the margins of a problem where there's already a solution," says Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Company in Port Washington, N.Y. "You can argue about this all day long, but you could solve it tomorrow if you wanted to."

The congestion is caused by the fact that more planes want to land in the New York region – especially during rush hours – than there are runways or airport gates to accommodate them. So flights regularly stack up in the sky while waiting for space to land. Since a third of all air traffic in the country either originates or passes through New York, those delays ripple across the nation.

Mr. Mann and other aviation analysts contend that better management of planes while they are in the air could easily reduce congestion. There are already software programs available that can manage airspace to maximize efficiency. They can tell airlines whether to speed up or slow down individual flights to avoid bottlenecks in congested hubs.

But the focus in Washington is on what to do when the planes are already stacked up in the skies waiting to land, say, at LaGuardia Airport.

The DOT contends that the best way to solve the problem is simply to cap the number of flights scheduled each hour. But there's concern that such a move could raise prices dramatically. So the DOT has proposed taking the landing slots that airlines currently have and auctioning off some of them.

"This increases competition by creating a robust secondary market for trading [landing slots] and allows new entrants to gain access to restricted airports," DOT counsel general D.J. Gribbin told the committee.

But critics, including the Port Authority of New York, which operates the region's airports, contend that is an untested idea that will add to the confusion and congestion as well as raise prices dramatically. The port authority also doesn't believe the DOT has the right to take away airlines' landing slots.

"We think it's not only illegal but also disastrous," says William DeCota, director of aviation at the port authority. "This proposal will do anything but create reliable and affordable air travel."

The port authority, the airlines, and Schumer all think the DOT should simply improve air traffic control by hiring more controllers and speeding up modernization of the nation's antiquated air traffic control system.

But some aviation analysts contend that both sides in the debate are missing a simple solution: better management of the planes when they're in the air.

"Today, airlines operate mostly on automatic: say a flight pulls off the gate in [Los Angeles] at 2:25, then they simply wait until it gets to [New York]" says Michael Boyd, president of The Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo.

And when they get there, they regularly find themselves circling as they wait to land. But what if that flight and others were managed to take advantage of real-time weather and airport congestion conditions to maximize the overall system's efficiency? In Germany, Lufthansa Airlines is already using a software program to do that. And so is Delta Airlines at its hub in Atlanta. That program is called "Attila." And it basically acts as a traffic cop in the sky.

For example, "If there are tail winds and no expected delays in New York, [Attila] would say, 'Throttle back, save 600 pounds of fuel and still arrive on time.' Or, if there were expected air traffic control problems it would say, 'Speed that [baby] up, because you need to get there sooner rather than later,' " says Mr. Boyd.

In the interest of disclosure, both Boyd and Mann have worked with Attila's inventor, the ATH Group, in Lanham, Md.

Delta Airlines, which started using Attila in August 2006, has saved more than 4 million gallons of fuel and more than 4,000 hours in flight time, according to the Attila website.

Several other major carriers are currently considering using the software at their hubs as well. But New York represents a more complex problem, since there are three major hubs in the same region and four major airlines. Attila operates to maximize the efficiency for each airline according to its own business needs. So if airlines were to adopt it in New York, analysts say there would have to be an "honest broker" of sorts that could prioritize flights fairly.

Meanwhile, the DOT is taking comments on its proposal to auction slots at the region's airports, and the airlines are vowing to take it to court if it moves ahead with the plan. Schumer has also pledged to block the plan.

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