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Unclogging the Airways: A Modest Proposal

Cindy Loose

The three New York airports take the three bottom slots on the list of airports with the worst on-time arrivals and departures, and the delays there ripple throughout the country.

In fact, an astounding 75 percent of delays nationwide originate in New York, according to a study by the Business Travel Coalition. How can that be? Well, if a flight from New York is arriving exceedingly late in Los Angeles, planes with on-time arrivals are put in a holding pattern while the flight from New York -- which might even be low on fuel -- is allowed to land.

The upshot? People on the planes being held miss connections, or planes await their arrival, and the domino effect begins.

The federal government, to the great consternation of airlines, has suggested limiting the number of flights into New York airports during prime times, and perhaps charging a premium for flying into JFK, Newark and LaGuardia during airport rush hours.

Yesterday, David Stempler of the Air Travelers Association came up with a different set of proposals for New York. Stempler, the consumer rep on a committee considering New York solutions, suggested:

* Eliminate all corporate jet operations at LaGuardia.

* Eliminate all published airline connections at LaGuardia. Thus LaGuardia would be a place to leave from or fly to, but not to connect through.

* Change the definition of "delay," currently defined as 15 minutes or more. I don't get how changing the definition helps anything, but Stempler says it will give passengers "a more realistic understanding of the congestion/delay situtation." His theory is that no one really complains about a 15 minute delay -- passengers are happy when they make it within that period of their scheduled arrival. While it would be good to know how late a given flight is on average, I'm not sure the definition needs to change.

* Finally, Stempler is suggesting that "non-standard' departures not be allowed from La Guardia. As he explains it, such departures arise when the aircraft, as loaded, cannot take off within FAA guidelines from the runway in use. So, the aircraft is sent to another runway. "It is like sending a car down the opposite direction of the Long Island Expressway in rush hour, with all the disruptions that would cause." Instead, if wind or weight or other conditions prohibit a plane taking off from the first assigned runway, it should either wait until conditions make it able to use that runway or cancel the flight.

That last one is tough to digest, but do the suggestions taken together make more sense than simply reducing the use of New York airports at peak travel times?

UPDATE (12/3/07): Stempler announced that his proposals were "summarily denied" by Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters. He is protesting the denials.

By Cindy Loose |  November 28, 2007; 11:07 AM ET  | Category:  Air Travel , Cindy Loose
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Eliminating corporate jet travel is not enough. So many of the departures are tiny regional jets that carry few passengers while consuming the same amount of airport infrastructure as a larger plane.

I have a better proposal. Make it a federal regulation that the flights scheduled must be able to taxi and take off in a reasonable period of time, say twenty minutes. If the flights repeatedly fail that measure, the next month 5% of the flights would be cancelled by the FAA. These flights would be the 5% that carried the fewest passengers. Repeat until the carrying capacity of the airport is determined.

Scheduling more flights than the airport can handle, especially with tiny planes, helps no one, not the airlines, not the airport, and certainly not the passengers

Posted by: Walter Nissen | November 28, 2007 1:39 PM

How about stopping the airlines from overbooking takeoffs/landings? JFK, O'Hare and numerous other large airports overschedule the number of flights that can take off every hour and it creates a hellish domino effect. For example - the FAA will only allow 80 flights to take off from JFK per hour - but they allow airlines to schedule fare more than this (like 120 during peak times) -- so then they have to level the takeoffs to 80 every hour and that means some planes get delayed and the effect lasts hours and hours.

We need a whole revamping of the ATC system and airlines that can actually run a sound business or air travel is only going to get worse in the US.

Posted by: freq flier | November 28, 2007 2:15 PM

Some of these ideas make sense, particularly limiting corporate jets out of La Guardia and banning the publishing of connecting flights. Another way of limiting traffic would be to limit the percentage of each carrier's flights that can use runway-cluttering regional jets. Placing a cap on the number of flights that can be scheduled to take off at any given time is the only real way to reduce congetsion, though.

Banning the non-standard takeoffs is stupid. LaGuardia is an old airport (its Marine-Air terminal was used for seaplanes in the 1930's, and still holds a gorgeous WPA mural). Because of its geographical limitations, it hasn't been able to expand like many other old airports have. It also has intersecting runways, and when weather is bad, one of those runways shuts down.

Despite all of these limitations, NYC fliers use LaGuardia because it's the closest to Manhattan. Introducing a further level of insecurity by canceling or further delaying certain flights (particularly if there is wind or bad weather) would be a tipping point for these travelers away from LaGuardia. Personally speaking, I sometimes take Acela and sometimes take "Shuttle" flights from LGA to BOS or DCA. If this restriction went into effect, I would never book a shuttle flight to BOS or DCA again, and would just take Acela.

(Incidentally, they also suggested doing away with one of LGA's best current traffic-management limitations - the 1500 mile perimeter. Right now, only flights of 1500 miles or less can fly to/from LGA. How in heaven's name is lifting that limitation going to reduce LGA traffic? Ridiculous.)

Posted by: NYC flier | December 3, 2007 1:27 PM

BTW, I just checked on this association's website - it "is not currently accepting new memberships", it doesn't have any information about its current membership base, and it only seems to have one person speaking for it (a lawyer who was a former president of two regional airlines). Its other "passenger-centric" press releases include one that weighs in against the passenger bill of rights.

I'm surprised you wouldn't have done a tiny bit of background reporting on this organization.

Posted by: NYC flier, cont. | December 3, 2007 1:45 PM

Responding to NYC flier....I'm in fact not clear about the composition of Stempler's organization, and may check into it at some point. In this case, though, I'm referring to Stempler's suggestions not as head of any organization but as a member of the commission trying to figure out what, if anything, they should do in New York. As such, his suggestions, whether biased or not, seem worthy of consideration and comment, pro or con. Although you raise an interesting question about which consumers Stempler's organization is representing. Perhaps I'll have time some day to have a look.

Posted by: Cindy Loose | December 3, 2007 1:56 PM

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