Jet airplanes may be able to defy gravity, but even the most powerful craft cannot escape the cruel physics that governs New York's LaGuardia Airport.
Squeezed onto a peninsula at the edge of the city's borough of Queens, the 67-year-old airport has long been among the most congested and constrained in the country. In ideal weather, its two 7,000-foot(2,135-meter) runways can handle a maximum of around 75 planes an hour, or about one every 48 seconds, according to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
That may sound like plenty, but it doesn't come close to meeting demand, and LaGuardia is out of space, making expansion impossible.
Still, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airport, believes it may be possible to move an additional 8 million passengers a year.
The secret, officials think, is pressuring airlines to fly bigger planes. "We need to move to larger aircraft," Port Authority spokesman Pasquale DiFulco said.
Since the summer, the FAA and Port Authority have been discussing competing proposals that would each make LaGuardia the first U.S. airport to threaten airlines with revocation of precious flight slots if they do not fly bigger jets.
The Port Authority favors setting minimum plane sizes on a gate-by-gate basis, based on how many passengers each can handle. Airlines that persist in flying smaller planes into gates capable of receiving bigger craft could lose their lease.
The FAA, on the other hand, has a plan that would require most airlines to meet an average aircraft-size target, probably of between 105 and 122 seats per flight.
Both plans have run into opposition.
The Air Transport Association, which represents the major U.S. airlines, formally objected to the FAA's proposal this month, calling it "governmental micromanagement."
"This is a market-driven economy, and the market should dictate the size and frequency of planes that a carrier can operate," association spokesman David Castelveter said.
He warned that service to smaller destinations from LaGuardia could be compromised if the airlines are forced to fly bigger planes.
At the same time, the FAA has proposed tackling the sticky issue of encouraging more competition for scarce flight slots at LaGuardia.
For nearly four decades, flights at the airport were controlled by a rationing system that limited congestion, but also made it nearly impossible for new air carriers to get access to the gates.
In 2000, Congress decided to encourage competition by decreeing that the old rationing system for LaGuardia and other high-density airports would expire by 2007. It also ordered transportation officials to immediately begin issuing new flight slots to airlines that had been shut out.
The result was temporary chaos. Flights into LaGuardia surged and it quickly became overwhelmed. The average delay time for arrivals skyrocketed 144 percent.
Worse yet, the backups began rippling across the country. By September of that year, gridlock at LaGuardia was responsible for 25 percent of all flight delays nationwide.
Alarmed, the FAA intervened. Just months after the experiment began, it restored a cap on flights and began distributing the few available new slots by lottery. On Jan. 1, the old slot rationing system expired on schedule.
Now, the agency has proposed a new system that would continue capping flights at about 75 per hour, but encourage competition by yanking 10 percent of the available slots each year from incumbent airlines and opening them up to new bidders.
The proposal has been assailed by some airlines, which say the constant threat of losing their slots will make investing in the airport needlessly risky, but applauded by other carriers, which have been fighting to expand in the New York market.
"This is the first opportunity we've seen for increased competition at LaGuardia," said Ed Faberman, spokesman for Orlando-based AirTran. "Obviously, the larger carriers are trying to do everything they can to try and put this on the shelf."
The Port Authority has expressed some concern about the proposal, warning in its formal comments to the FAA that such a large turnover of gates could cause "unnecessarily roiling" for the airlines "without any commensurate benefit."
City officials praised the FAA's goals, but said the new rules were too complicated and endorsed the Port Authority's "gate management" approach.
FAA officials temporarily put in place a new set of operating rules that will extend the status quo through the summer. The agency hopes to have a final solution in place by then.
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