Gridlock over how to end flight gridlock

The airlines balk after the FAA proposes congestion pricing and flight caps for airports in the New York area.

It all sounded so easy.

There is a problem: record delays and congestion at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, which ripple through airports across the country. There was an apparent solution: a big meeting among the airlines, the airport managers, and federal regulators to address it. But there's also a reason for sayings like "The devil's in the details."

Intensive meetings last week did yield some results. JetBlue and Delta agreed to shift their schedules to help alleviate congestion during peak periods, and other airlines are weighing similar steps.

But the message for public consumption was clear: The airlines, the airport managers, and more than a dozen business and cultural institutions enlisted to support them are outraged by what they see as failure by the Federal Aviation Administration to prevent the problem in the first place. On Friday, they blasted the FAA and, in particular, the agency's top two proposed solutions: congestion pricing, which would charge airlines more to land during peak periods, and mandatory caps that would reduce by 20 percent the current 100 departing flights per hour.

"There are so many losers from caps, but there is arguably one winner – the federal government, which gets off the hook easy," says Anthony Shorris, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the region's three major airports. "It's a cheap, fast, easy purported solution that allows the federal government to walk away from its responsibilities to make America's air-traffic system what it should be."

While all say they remain committed to working cooperatively to resolve the problem, the heated reaction seemed to take the FAA by surprise. The agency's first statement touted the cooperative process, but also drew the FAA's own line in the sand.

"Allowing a repeat of last summer's record-setting airline delays … is simply not an option," said Department of Transportation spokesman Brian Turmail.

Later, in a phone interview, Mr. Turmail blasted the airlines and airport authority for complaining without offering good short-term solutions of their own." Instead of the airlines spending all of their time giving reasons why something won't work, I think travelers would be better served if they'd spend their time coming up with suggestions that would reduce delays," he said.

At the center of the dispute is how quickly and safely the federal government can upgrade technology and make changes in air-traffic control to increase capacity at New York's airports. The goal is to allow as many passengers and planes to land there as want to.

The FAA's steps thus far

The FAA has redesigned the airspace so that more planes can land and take off at the same time and is implementing that plan. But there's opposition from some communities that would hear more planes roaring overhead. They've brought lawsuits, and some congressmen are threatening to block the plan.

The FAA is also negotiating with the military to open up some restricted airspace over the Atlantic Ocean to create new departure routes. And the agency has announced plans to introduce satellite-based technology that will allow some planes to take off closer together. But it will take as long as three years to implement those changes – and 10 years before the entire air-traffic control system is shifted to a satellite-based technology that will ease congestion everywhere.

So the second key issue, from the FAA's point of view, is what to do in the short term. It wants the airlines to self-police their schedules – meaning that not every traveler who wants to leave at 6 p.m. on a Friday would be able to do so. Some may have to depart at 4 p.m. or 8 p.m., but at least they won't be sitting on the tarmac for an hour or more waiting for all the other scheduled 6 p.m. flights to leave. The FAA has told the airlines that if they don't resolve the problem themselves, it will put caps on the number of departing flights and may implement congestion pricing.

Airlines seek better air-traffic control

From the view of the airlines and the airport authority, the FAA still isn't moving aggressively enough to improve air-traffic control. Talk of imposing caps, they say, will turn back the clock and undermine New York's economy.

"We are opposed to artificial restraints on travel and taxes on travel," says James May, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association, which represents the major carriers. "The constraints they're attempting to put on JFK are reminiscent of traffic levels that were accomplished in 1969. We don't need to look back; we need to look forward."

The FAA's Turmail says operational improvements are "a must and already under way." But he's just as adamant that the airlines must make some changes. "We have to figure out what changes the airlines can make and what the Port Authority can do to avoid these delays in the future," he says.

Advocates for passengers say both sides can do better. "There's some definite denial ... among airlines about how bad the problem is," says Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition, an advocacy group for business travelers. "On the other hand, the FAA just seems like it wants to experiment in New York with this congestion pricing and they're not hearing the objections."

Still, there are some hopeful signs for the weary, oft-delayed traveler, says Mr. Mitchell. At least every body's talking about a finding a solution and, in the end, they just might, he says.

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