A Smart FAA Plan to Reduce Airport Congestion

  • Share
  • Read Later
Few people thought the Federal Aviation Administration could, as it promised, solve the delay problem at New York's LaGuardia Airport in six months.

And it didn't.

But what the FAA did do this week is a stunning, even brave, departure from the incremental approach that has dominated the agency for too long. They have — shockingly — given notice to all the players in the aviation game that it is time to pay up for the scarcest of resources: Tarmac space at LaGuardia.

"The FAA's proposals are a great first step in hammering out what virtually every other industry in America has learned: How to use the marketplace to allocate a scarce resource," says David Plavin, head of the Airports Council International-North America, a Washington group that represents airport managers and operators around the U.S.

Plavin, and others, hope the FAA will keep the ball rolling at the other top ten delay-plagued airports in the country. Then, perhaps, passengers won't have to suffer through another year like the last one, during which one out of every four flights was delayed. "The debates about how to fix the problems at LaGuardia are a microcosm of what's going on around the country," explains Plavin. "If the FAA gets LaGuardia right, there is no reason that parts of what works at LaGuardia can't be applied to other airports."

So just what has the FAA proposed to make LaGuardia livable again? Its first suggestion is a classic old-style agency tactic: Kick the final decision down the field by extending the current 'lottery' system of flights. The lottery was imposed last winter after Congress foolishly opened the floodgates by changing legislation to allow pretty much anyone to fly into the most congested airspace in the world. "We told members of Congress that the airlines would throw every airplane they had at LaGuardia and the flying world would come to a stop if they passed that bill. But they did it anyway," says a disgusted Washington aviation insider. "They ignored us, and we all watched the as the system locked up."

The resulting pandemonium set in last fall, after 300 new flights a day were added (but before an additional 300 were up and running). Delays tripled at LaGuardia, affecting more than a quarter of all flights. Air carriers were sending squadrons of smaller (under 100 seats) and typically slower planes into the airport, holding back operations at a facility that demands movements in much less than a New York minute.

Then came the voice of reason: LaGuardia's managers — the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — cried uncle. The FAA imposed a lottery that helped ease traffic and rendered the airport's delays more reasonable. (Reasonable, that is, if you call a one in ten chance of being delayed for an average of 40.51 minutes reasonable).

But the lottery only made the problem manageable. It's the second half of the FAA's strategy that's revolutionary and has airline managers quaking. It's called 'demand management.' For English speakers, this means finding ways to strongly encourage airlines not to make so many flights out of a particular airport. To accomplish this, the FAA is floating two controversial proposals: One, making airlines pay more, or two, literally forcing them to put the interests of the airport and the air traffic system first.

The first proposal involves charging airlines s hefty fee (around $1,000 per takeoff) to leave at prime time (like 5 p.m.) Airlines claim this will just raise ticket prices and will dissuade people from flying. Of course, we all know that if high fares actually served as a deterrent, there wouldn't be 700 million people flying today — and we wouldn't have congestion in the first place.

The second proposal is to run off these pesky little aircraft and establish a minimum aircraft size for planes who want to come into LaGuardia. Aviation economists routinely point out that while the number of flights has jumped by double-digit percentages in major U.S. markets over the past decade or so, the increase has come with the advent of smaller planes. The number of actual seats, in other words, has pretty much stayed the same.

Whatever it takes

The Port Authority, which worked closely with the FAA in developing possible options, seems primed to make whatever changes are necessary to bring LaGuardia back to something resembling normalcy. "We have proposed both market solutions and administrative tools to get the carrier to use LaGuardia more efficiently," says Neil Levin, the recently installed head of the Port Authority, who brings a businessman's impatience to the sluggish world of aviation policy. Levin seems to be itching to do something soon, and is not opposed to using strongarm tactics to accomplish his goal. One page of options from Levin's office boldly states that the Port will "eliminate the use of commuter aircraft" in an airline's reserved time spot. Airport types don't usually talk that way to the high and mighty airline folk.

There's nothing usual about the air traffic crisis at LaGuardia, though, and the airlines know the FAA and the Port Authority are serious about finding a solution. "No one disputes there is a problem at LaGuardia," says Levin. "One way or another, somebody has to fix it."