Commentary

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.

Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.

Surface Transportation

In the field of surface transportation, Poole has advised the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the White House Office of Policy Development, National Economic Council, Government Accountability Office, and state DOTs in numerous states.

Poole's 1988 policy paper proposing privately financed toll lanes to relieve congestion directly inspired California's landmark private tollway law (AB 680), which authorized four pilot toll projects including the successful 91 Express Lanes in Orange County. More than 20 other states and the federal government have since enacted similar public-private partnership legislation. In 1993, Poole oversaw a study that coined the term HOT (high-occupancy toll) Lanes, a term which has become widely accepted since.

California Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Poole to the California's Commission on Transportation Investment and he also served on the Caltrans Privatization Advisory Steering Committee, where he helped oversee the implementation of AB 680.

From 2003 to 2005, he was a member of the Transportation Research Board's special committee on the long-term viability of the fuel tax for highway finance. In 2008 he served as a member of the Texas Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Roads, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. In 2009, he was a member of an Expert Review Panel for Washington State DOT, advising on a $1.5 billion toll mega-project. In 2010, he was a member of the transportation transition team for Florida's Governor-elect Rick Scott. He is a member of two TRB standing committees: Congestion Pricing and Managed Lanes.

Aviation

Poole is a member of the Government Accountability Office's National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel and he has testified before the House and Senate's aviation subcommittees on numerous occasions. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Poole consulted the White House Domestic Policy Council and the leadership of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

He has also advised the Federal Aviation Administration, Office of the Secretary of Transportation, White House Office of Policy Development, National Performance Review, National Economic Council, and the National Civil Aviation Review Commission on aviation issues. Poole is a member of the Critical Infrastructure Council of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation and of the Air Traffic Control Association.

Poole was among the first to propose the commercialization of the U.S. air traffic control system, and his work in this field has helped shape proposals for a U.S. air traffic control corporation. A version of his corporation concept was implemented in Canada in 1996 and was more recently endorsed by several former top FAA administrators.

Poole's studies also launched a national debate on airport privatization in the United States. He advised both the FAA and local officials during the 1989-90 controversy over the proposed privatization of Albany (NY) Airport. His policy research on this issue helped inspire Congress' 1996 enactment of the Airport Privatization Pilot Program and the privatization of Indianapolis' airport management under Mayor Steve Goldsmith.

General Background

Robert Poole co-founded the Reason Foundation with Manny Klausner and Tibor Machan in 1978, and served as its president and CEO from then until the end of 2000. He was a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000. Over the years, he has advised the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations on privatization and transportation policy.

Poole is credited as the first person to use the term "privatization" to refer to the contracting-out of public services and is the author of the first-ever book on privatization, Cutting Back City Hall, published by Universe Books in 1980. He is also editor of the books Instead of Regulation: Alternatives to Federal Regulatory Agencies (Lexington Books, 1981), Defending a Free Society (Lexington Books, 1984), and Unnatural Monopolies (Lexington Books, 1985). He also co-edited the book Free Minds & Free Markets: 25 Years of Reason (Pacific Research Institute, 1993).

Poole has written hundreds of articles, papers, and policy studies on privatization and transportation issues. His popular writings have appeared in national newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, and numerous other publications. He has also been a guest on network television programs such as Good Morning America, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News Tonight, and the CBS Evening News. Poole writes a monthly column on transportation issues for Public Works Financing.

Poole earned his B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and did graduate work in operations research at New York University.