Every day, the skies over New York fill with long lines of airplanes – think conga lines, but not everyone is smiling because there's a good chance they're late.
The reason: There aren't enough runways, gates, or airspace to handle all of the flights scheduled by the airlines at the region's three major airports, especially during peak times. The result is record delays, and not just in New York. Because America's aviation system is so complex and congested, those slowdowns ripple from the tarmac in Queens to Chicago, Los Angeles, and dozens of cities in between.
On Tuesday, the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration will try to do something about it.
In an unusual meeting convened by US Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, the airlines, the airport authority, and federal regulators will see if they can agree to voluntarily reduce the number of scheduled flights at area airports, particularly during peak times.
As a starting point, Secretary Peters on Friday announced a goal: reduce the maximum number of scheduled flights from 100 an hour to 80 an hour at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
"Our strong preference is to develop market-based solutions that will address delays and preserve passenger choice," she said in a statement. "But we will consider scheduling reductions as a last resort in order to prevent a repeat of this summer's nightmare delays."
No one is happy about the situation, least of all the airlines. They want assurances that if they do reduce their flights, some new carrier won't come in and use up the slots they vacated.
While they're cooperating, they also insist that a less-packed flight schedule won't necessarily solve the problem. As proof, they cite Continental Airlines' operation at Newark International Airport in New Jersey, which until this year held the distinction of being the most congested airport in the US. During the past two years, it reduced its flight schedule, but that had a negligible effect on delays.
"We believe that the solution requires a suite of actions, not isolated activities," says David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association (ATA), which represents the nation's major airlines. "We're not sure just reducing commercial operations will have any significant impact on delays. And it will certainly have a very negative impact on the travel community, because carriers put airplanes during peak periods because that's when people need to travel."
The main problem, says Mr. Castelveter, is inefficient use of the airspace in the region. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has proposed a major redesign of the airspace over New York, but several local communities are suing to stop it. The ATA says there are other options. For instance, at John F. Kennedy International Airport there are four runways, but often only two or three are in use, according to Castelveter. He says that the FAA’s air traffic controllers could schedule planes more efficiently. There's also restricted military airspace around New York that isn't always in use. He says that could be opened up to increase efficiency. Finally, the ATA wants the private corporate jet community to make some sacrifices to deal with the congestion.
There are also technological fixes that can be implemented. For instance, at Atlanta's Hartsdale Airport, the FAA and Delta Airlines are using satellite-based navigation to allow more planes to land and take off at one time. Some experts say that could be used in New York. In the past year, Delta has also begun using new software that allows it to prioritize flight arrivals while they’re in the air. "Planes don’t arrive sequenced perfectly"
"Planes don't arrive sequenced perfectly ." says Robert Mann of R.W. Mann & Co., an aviation consultant in Port Washington, N.Y. "With this new software, Delta is actually able to manage those arrivals more efficiently."
These are all short-term fixes. The long-term solution is what the FAA calls its Next Generation Air Traffic Control – satellite-based technology that will allow more airplanes in the sky. But it will take years to implement. Currently, Congress can't decide how it should be paid for.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the airlines plan to talk about reducing their schedules as well as what could happen if voluntary cooperation fails to bring about an easing of the packed skies.
"Congestion pricing has worked exceptionally well in other areas of our economy such as highways, electricity, and telecommunications, and we believe the time has arrived to pursue similar approaches in the aviation sector," Peters told a Senate committee last Thursday.
The airlines are adamantly opposed to the idea of paying more to fly during peak periods, contending that it will only cause them to raise prices and reduce service. Other analysts question whether congestion pricing will work in the New York region.
"Peak pricing doesn't work in a place like LaGuardia because LaGuardia is busy all of the time," says John Hansman, an aviation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
Another solution puts a limit on the number of smaller, regional jets that airlines can schedule during peak flying periods. In 2000, major airlines started using the jets to fly routes. They now make up about 30 percent of the planes used by airlines.
"The thing that makes the most sense is to force the airlines to go to larger airplanes," says Professor Hansman. "There are legitimate issues of underutilization ... because you're using multiple frequencies of smaller airplanes on short routes."
But even with all of these ideas and this cooperation, Calvin Scovel, inspector general for theDepartment of Transportation, gave a warning to the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday.
"Remember that the traveling public will likely face similar air-travel problems in the spring and summer of 2008 and 2009 before they experience any real relief from capacity problems," he said.
So what's a hectic business person to do? Hansman's solution: "Take the train," he says with a laugh. "The real advice: If you have an international connection through Kennedy or Newark, it's getting really risky to take a close domestic connection. Travelers should factor that in," he says. "The system is just going to get less reliable."