Airport Auctions

New York Sun: A call for peak pricing at JFK

It is time for the FAA to set up an auction for departure times. The airlines can bid for the best times and pass the cost (or savings) on to their customers. Some of us will choose to fly at less desirable times in exchange for a lower fare. Others will pay up for the best schedule. Frankly, the airlines already have us trained. If I wanted to fly to Columbus, Ohio next weekend, American offers me three different departure times with fares ranging between $134 for an 8:30 a.m. departure from LaGuardia and $254 for a 3:55 p.m. departure from Newark. In effect, the airlines' sophisticated demand-driven pricing already lets them charge travelers for popular departures. An auction for departure slots would shift the value of this premium to the public and encourage more efficient scheduling.

This approach would also encourage a better allocation of takeoff slots to planes by size. The FAA's 80 departures per hour from JFK would apply to all planes, from a Learjet 23, which is about 35 feet long and seats six, to the double-decker Airbus A380, which is nearly 240 feet long and can accommodate as many as 853 passengers. Business jets and small commuter planes would be encouraged, not by words but by cold, hard cash, to use less crowded times and less crowded airports.

We passengers would spend less time sitting on the tarmac, waiting our turn to rattle and roll down the runway. While the delays at JFK have been getting much of the attention, Newark and LaGuardia are hardly better. For the year ending August 2007, 32% of Newark flights and 28% of LaGuardia flights left 15 minutes or more after their scheduled departure time. Newark's delayed departures were 68 minutes late on average while LaGuardia delays averaged 61 minutes. Looking at domestic flights alone, that carried 36.4 million passengers, there were about 468,000 departures at the three airports over the year. If the delayed flights carried the average number of passengers (78), over 11 million passengers spent more than an hour sitting on the tarmac or waiting in the terminal for their flights to board. What's it worth to you to leave on time? Suppose you are sitting on a stuffy plane and the pilot announces, "The flight attendants will now be passing through the aisles collecting contributions. If we raise $10 per passenger we'll leave now. Otherwise we'll wait an extra hour. The FAA accepts VISA, Mastercard, American Express, Discover, and PayPal." If the time wasted is worth only $10 per hour, the value of timely departures is about $120 million per year for domestic departures. With international departures added in, the annual cost tops $170 million.

Let's not rely on the voluntary scheduling of the airlines nor on arbitrary rules designed by the FAA. The market can work - let it do its job.

Mr. Gardner is president and chief economist of the Center for Governmental Research, a nonprofit with offices in Rochester and Albany.

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