Airport Band-Aid

Port Authority rejects deal to really reduce air travel delays

December 20, 2007 — TRANSPORTATION Secretary Mary Peters yesterday announced a plan to cut delays at New York’s airports – but this “solution” just puts a Band-Aid on a severed artery: It might help a little bit, but doesn’t fix the problem.

The Transportation Department’s main fix is to ask airlines to move a few flights out of the busiest peaks at JFK and Newark; it may also hold auctions to allocate the rights to use any new capacity that can be squeezed out of these airports in the future.

In short, the plan leaves today’s cockamamie system intact – and so sends all the wrong signals to airlines and passengers about how to make the best (most economically productive) use of these airports’ valuable capacity.

We should start by asking why all three major New York airports (JFK, LaGuardia and Newark) are overloaded with planes at certain hours of each day. The answer: Airlines knowingly schedule more flights than the airports and air-traffic-control system can safely handle, guaranteeing passengers will be stuck on the tarmac.

To compete on frequency of service over the last five years, airlines have added flights and substituted smaller planes for larger ones. JFK is the worst: Flights by planes with fewer than 100 seats having risen 128 percent.

Sure, passengers like more flight choices – but the result at capacity-constrained airports is ever-increasing delays.

The Port Authority, which runs all three airports, contributes to the problem because of how it charges to use the runways – namely, fees based on each plane’s weight. Despite using the same time and resources for a take-off, a 35-seat regional jet pays just $181, while a 767 carrying perhaps 250 people pays $1,600

And those fees are the same at peak periods and off-peak times.

What if the fees were instead based on how popular (i.e., congested) each time period is?

If the charge for taking off from JFK during evening rush hours were $2,000, the added cost for a 767 would average less than $2 per passenger. But the extra cost for the 30 people on the 35-passenger regional jet would be $52 each. Passengers and airlines would want that flight moved to a cheaper, less busy hour – making room for the 767 and reducing delays. This approach is called airport congestion pricing.

Transportation Secretary Peters wants congestion pricing. But the Port Authority made it clear that it did not – and she lacks authority to force a change.

In a major study released this week, the Reason Foundation urges the Port Authority to take a fresh look at congestion pricing. The report presents evidence that, under this system, airlines would move many flights out of peak periods and use larger planes on other flights – reversing the trend toward more flights on smaller planes, which has helped usher in these delays.

It’s important to realize that this reform would not cut back on total passenger volume at the NY airports to reduce delays. Rather, it would shift passengers out of those hourly, small-jet flights to Boston and Chicago (which would be significantly more expensive) to less-frequent flights on larger jets.

By contrast, the new federal plan does cut back on flights – reducing passenger numbers and thus harming the New York area’s economy.

The airlines – which oppose congestion pricing – have cleverly, but wrongly, argued the reverse. By claiming that congestion pricing would reduce passenger throughput, they’ve managed to convince New York and New Jersey business and political leaders that it’s a bad idea.

The airlines do have one valid concern – the fear that the Port Authority would divert new revenues from congestion pricing to non-airport projects. But the way to address this is to set up a “lockbox” to ensure that all these revenues go to projects that expand the airport’s runway throughput.

Then congestion pricing would not end up as a “tax” on air travel, but as a tool to eliminate delays. It would motivate airlines to make the highest and best use of runway capacity, while generating the funding to expand capacity.

The new federal plan won’t significantly reduce delays: You’ll still be stuck in the terminal or on the tarmac.

The Port Authority can change that by making airlines face real consequences for over-scheduling and using those fees to create a fund that can pay for needed capacity expansions. But until the PA changes course, flights in and out of New York will still be hours late.