Airlines balk at order to cut JFK flights

WASHINGTON -- The government's effort to cut record flight delays at New York got off to a bitter start Tuesday when the airlines' trade organization threatened to challenge new controls in court.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters on Tuesday convened a rare meeting here of 70 aviation officials representing 14 airlines and the New York's three major airports: LaGuardia and Newark Liberty as well as John F. Kennedy, where flights and delays have risen most sharply in recent years.

"We have a serious problem at John F. Kennedy airport," Peters told officials at Federal Aviation Administration headquarters. "Chronic delays too many have experienced at JFK impact travelers to and from New York and across the entire aviation system."

Federal officials want airlines at JFK to cut their peak-time schedules by next summer or face imposed flight reductions, higher landing fees or both.

But the Air Transport Association, which represents most large U.S. airlines, blasted the FAA's plan as a "meat ax" approach and threatened to sue the Department of Transportation if it tries to impose higher landing fees at JFK.

Airline flight cuts in New York would affect airports across the country as well as abroad. More than 60 airports in the USA alone have non-stop flights to JFK. From January through August, flight delays at New York airports accounted for 37% of all delays nationwide.

Flights at JFK have jumped 44% since 2004, largely because of expansions by Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways. Both have increased their summer schedules at JFK by nearly 90% since 2004.

The FAA has asked airlines to limit scheduled flights at JFK to 81 an hour during afternoons. Last summer, as many as 110 flights an hour were scheduled in the afternoon, leading to long tarmac lines and delays.

ATA President James May said airlines are willing to reduce JFK flights only to about 90 an hour. He said it's unfair for the FAA to call for such deep cuts when the government is not doing all it can to improve air traffic control.

The group said the FAA could substantially improve efficiency at Kennedy and the New York region in five ways by next summer. One is by using satellite technology to let planes fly more-direct paths to and from JFK.

The FAA is working to redesign the complex airspace over New York, which it says could reduce delays as much as 20%. But that could take three years. And opponents of the redesign, including community groups worried about aircraft noise, have threatened to sue over the proposed changes.

The DOT also has convened a separate group of airline, airport and government officials to propose what Peters calls "market-based" congestion solutions, such as higher airplane landing fees during an airport's busiest times. She wants recommendations by December.