The captain has locked the armored cockpit door, the engines whine, and the plane pushes off, rolling away from the gate so another can take its place. Then it stops. After the safety briefing the pilot tells you the bad news - there are 40 or 50 planes ahead of you, all waiting their turn to slip the surly bonds of earth. As if the uncomfortable flight weren't enough, you are now condemned to spend another hour or two waiting on the ground. Who's surly now?
For the year ending August 2007, a third of scheduled flights left the John F. Kennedy airport more than 15 minutes late. The average delay for late departures was just over an hour. That's the average, so for every flight that leaves a tolerable 30 minutes late there is another in which passengers sit and fume for 90.
In response, the Federal Aviation Administration pulled out a big stick last week, threatening to limit the number of flights leaving JFK to 80 an hour. "About time," you say. Something should be done to address the problem. Consider the waste of fuel as 40 jets idle on the tarmac, moving like the Long Island Expressway at 5 p.m. Jets burn fuel quickly while idle - the engines are designed to be efficient at high speeds and high altitudes. And as Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic has pointed out, planes waiting for take-off also cause significant environmental damage. Moreover, these delays fray the nerves and waste the time of millions of travelers.
To avoid the FAA's stick, JetBlue and Delta announced "voluntary" schedule changes intended to spread out the number of flights. But allowing the airlines to make these decisions isn't the solution. No airline wishes to schedule flights at less popular times so its competitors can take the better slots. The situation will improve temporarily, then the temptation to overbook popular times will put us right back where we started.
This is a classic economic problem. If JetBlue or Delta cut flights at popular times, all other airlines and their customers will benefit while these carriers bear the cost. JetBlue and Delta will capture only a fraction of the benefit of reducing congestion. It would be a bad business decision to make more than the barest minimum change, just enough to keep the FAA from imposing a cap.
There is a better way. Economists have long urged regulators to allocate departure and arrival slots by auction. Some flight times are more desirable than others. Early morning and late afternoon departures let business travelers spend another night at their own beds or get home before Emily or Jacob go to bed. I can often be found on the JetBlue flight 45 departing Rochester for New York at 6 a.m. or JetBlue flight 32 bringing me home at 5:10 p.m.
Flights to Europe bunch up in the evening. Of the 23 non-stop flights to London from JFK, five are before 9 a.m. and the rest leave after 6 p.m. The early morning flights allow you to try to sleep with the locals. The evening flights let you pretend you've slept on the plane, arriving ready for a day of meetings. If you leave New York at 3 p.m. you'd find yourself wandering London too late to sleep and too early to do anything else. Southwest Airlines built a business on using less popular airports - places like Long Island MacArthur in Islip, Baltimore-Washington International, and Chicago Midway. That was the bad news - the good news was lower fares. Let's apply the lesson to departure times. If I could save $100 on my fare to London, I might accept a 3:07 a.m. arrival at Heathrow.