Airport Congestion Costs New York Billions

How bad is congestion at the major New York-area airports? That’s the question the Partnership for New York City set out to answer, in a follow-up to the 2006-07 debates over congestion, delays, runway pricing, and slot auctions. It commissioned HDR Decision Economics to research the question, and the result was released in February 2009 as “Grounded: The High Cost of Air Traffic Congestion.”

The report, which appears to be competently done, is something of an eye-opener. New York airport congestion has a number of costs, the principal ones of which are estimated as follows:

  • Lost time to air travelers was $1.7 billion in 2008, and over the period 2008-2025 will likely total more than $50 billion.
  • Airline costs (wasted fuel and excessive crew time) were $834 million in 2008 and will total $25 billion between now and 2025.
  • Freight shippers lost $136 million in 2008, and will lose a total of $4 billion by 2025.
  • Productivity losses to the regional economy were estimated at $21.5 billion over the 2008-2025 period.
  • And additional emissions generated by planes in long lines waiting to take off are estimated to cause harm estimated at $1.7 billion of this time period.

That’s a huge price tag, in anybody’s book. So now that we know how bad the impact is, how should those affected deal with this costly congestion?

The introduction of the report created big expectations for me, saying the Partnership “wanted to determine whether investing in expansion of regional airport capacity and upgrading the air traffic control system to reduce flight delays would pay off for the region and the nation.” It follows this by saying that, “The findings of this study clearly show that such investment is more than justified by the cost burdens resulting from inefficient and unpredictable passenger and air freight service due to congestion.”

I read on eagerly, hoping to find conclusions and recommendations calling for bold expansion plans—perhaps terminal expansion at LaGuardia to permit larger passenger volumes that would be consistent with “up-gauging” the average passenger capacity of planes using that airport or possibly the 2008 Reason Foundation proposal for adding a closely spaced parallel runway at JFK.

Alas, what I got was a set of very modest incremental improvements: improve ground traffic management, speed up the use of RNAV (area navigation) departures, redesign the region’s airspace (already under way by the FAA), implement NextGen capabilities in the air traffic control system and on airliners, and (a direct result of the previous measure) reduce excess spacing between aircraft on approaches to the airports.

The report also includes a provocative statement: “All travelers, other things being equal, would prefer to arrive at their destinations more quickly, and almost all would be willing to pay something more to make that happen.” Indeed, the cost of passenger delays in the report was estimated using FAA air-traveler value of time figures. But instead of taking this point to its logical conclusion—runway congestion pricing—the report just drops it.

In fact, as George Donohue and Karla Hoffman found when they ran a strategic simulation game in cooperation with the FAA, airlines, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, runway congestion pricing at LaGuardia would lead to significant up-gauging of aircraft there, making better use of its scarce and valuable runway capacity.

There is good reason to expect the same to be true of JFK and Newark. Runway pricing would not only reduce delays without reducing passenger throughput; it would also generate additional airport revenue that could help pay for terminal and runway expansions in the Port Authority’s airport system.