Every day, the skies over New York fill with long lines of airplanes - think conga lines, but not everyone is smiling because there's a good chance they're late.
The reason: There aren't enough runways, gates, or airspace to handle all of the flights scheduled by the airlines at the region's three major airports, especially during peak times. The result is record delays, and not just in New York. Because America's aviation system is so complex and congested, those slowdowns ripple from the tarmac in Queens to Chicago, Los Angeles, and dozens of cities in between.
On Tuesday, the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration will try to do something about it.
In an unusual meeting convened by US Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, the airlines, the airport authority, and federal regulators will see if they can agree to voluntarily reduce the number of scheduled flights at area airports, particularly during peak times.
As a starting point, Secretary Peters on Friday announced a goal: reduce the maximum number of scheduled flights from 100 an hour to 80 an hour at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
"Our strong preference is to develop market-based solutions that will address delays and preserve passenger choice," she said in a statement. "But we will consider scheduling reductions as a last resort in order to prevent a repeat of this summer's nightmare delays."
No one is happy about the situation, least of all the airlines. They want assurances that if they do reduce their flights, some new carrier won't come in and use up the slots they vacated.
While they're cooperating, they also insist that a less-packed flight schedule won't necessarily solve the problem. As proof, they cite Continental Airlines' operation at Newark International Airport in New Jersey, which until this year held the distinction of being the most congested airport in the US. During the past two years, it reduced its flight schedule, but that had a negligible effect on delays.
"We believe that the solution requires a suite of actions, not isolated activities," says David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association (ATA), which represents the nation's major airlines. "We're not sure just reducing commercial operations will have any significant impact on delays. And it will certainly have a very negative impact on the travel community, because carriers put airplanes during peak periods because that's when people need to travel."
The main problem, says Mr. Castelveter, is inefficient use of the airspace in the region. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has proposed a major redesign of the airspace over New York, but several local communities are suing to stop it. The ATA says there are other options. For instance, at John F. Kennedy International Airport there are four runways, but often only two or three are in use, according to Castelveter. He says that the FAAâ??s air traffic controllers could schedule planes more efficiently. There's also restricted military airspace around New York that isn't always in use. He says that could be opened up to increase efficiency. Finally, the ATA wants the private corporate jet community to make some sacrifices to deal with the congestion.
There are also technological fixes that can be implemented. For instance, at Atlanta's Hartsdale Airport, the FAA and Delta Airlines are using satellite-based navigation to allow more planes to land and take off at one time. Some experts say that could be used in New York. In the past year, Delta has also begun using new software that allows it to prioritize flight arrivals while theyâ??re in the air. "Planes donâ??t arrive sequenced perfectly"
"Planes don't arrive sequenced perfectly ." says Robert Mann of R.W. Mann & Co., an aviation consultant in Port Washington, N.Y. "With this new software, Delta is actually able to manage those arrivals more efficiently."
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The Transportation Department in May began investigating flights that are at least 15 minutes late more than 70 percent of the time.
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