The FAA has threatened to impose flight caps at New York's congested gateway airport, JF Kennedy. US carriers object strenuously to this heavy-handed approach - which may include congestion fees
New Yorkers like to boast that in the Big Apple they're years ahead of most trends. But the city, home to the three most delayed, congestion-hobbled major airports in the country, is about to become a test case of just how far regulators can restrict flights in response to a clear and admitted delay and congestion crisis.
The government has moved to address the crisis by threatening outright quotas or flight caps at JFK, the region's major international gateway and the single most delay-prone airport in the nation. The Bush administration has also said it may use the 5,000-acre (2,023ha), four-runway airport as a test bed for an experiment in congestion pricing.
Both domestic and international airlines are focusing on the crisis, which follows the worst summer in post-deregulation history for airline performance and passenger dissatisfaction. And because it's in New York, the situation far outstrips in scope and impact the last airport quagmire that the federal government tried to resolve. In 2004, as flight delays at Chicago's O'Hare International reached crisis proportions, the FAA called in the airport's two dominant carriers, American and United. But because their duopoly was domestic and international, the regulators and the airlines were able to reach a compromise.
New York, however, is vastly different. It is the most hotly contested airline market in the nation, with three major airports competing with each other, a host of smaller airports clamouring for attention, and three major US international flag carriers, together with one fast-growing low-cost carrier, all fighting it out at the three airports. Meanwhile, JFK remains for foreign flag carriers one of the most sought-after destinations in the world.
The importance of the region's airports to the national system is beyond debate, as is the impact of delays here. Of all the flights in US airspace that suffered chronic delays in the first eight months of this year, about 70% were flights that ended in, began in, or transited New York airspace. Because the airspace is so complex and so integrated, and because the three major airports are so close to each other, it is difficult to consider any one airport in isolation.
As the national delays crisis took centre stage over summer, attention turned to New York, where the government's first step was to declare that JFK was in the same category as O'Hare, and so subject to emergency restrictions. It then called in the airlines. But before calling them in, the US Department of Transportation said it was considering limiting JFK to 80 flights an hour, a cut of at least 20% from good weather rates. Air Transport Association chief executive Jim May said it was clear to him that "they are not interested in collaborative steps but are going at this with a meat axe". Of the remedies proposed, May says: "If they can do it there they can do it anywhere."
Fury at the FAA's looming quota came from all quarters: Delta Air Lines, which has built up its international gateway at JFK American, which has long been a mainstay at JFK Continental, which has a major international and domestic hub at Newark the governors of both New York and New Jersey and the airport operator itself, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The governors said Newark "would inevitably be flooded with excess flights pushed out of New York", making "Kennedy's delays Newark's delays". The sole exception was JetBlue, which is based at JFK. Although the airline urged a resolution to JFK's problems, it did not howl as loudly.
For American, JFK is the key to keeping high-value passengers on its domestic and international network, says David Cush, vice-president for global sales. Meanwhile, Delta's goal for JFK is to "restore it to its status as the pre-eminent US international gateway", says executive vice-president operations, Joe Kolshak.
Continental's Newark hub is the future of its international network. Chief executive Larry Kellner says: "It's a huge market, and with the 787 coming we have a lot of opportunities" at Newark. Even British Airways, which operates 51 weekly JFK-Heathrow flights and plans to launch flights next year from JFK to continental Europe, let it be known that a major cutback in JFK capacity could hobble it.
The FAA's goal of cutting JFK flights to 80 an hour, according to Anthony Shorris, the port authority's executive director, would have forced the airport to turn away nearly 3.4 million passengers, or 10,000 a day, last year. Under the restrictions, JFK would handle fewer flights than LaGuardia, even though JFK is far larger with 44,000 total feet (13,411m) of runway space versus 14,000 feet at LaGuardia - which faces its own set of FAA restrictions.
There are a number of short-term airspace fixes and reconfigurations, but Shorris says the New York crisis presents a major opportunity for the use of secondary and alternative airports. In this area, some of these airports are far enough away from the 20-square-mile (52km2) epicentre that they do not suffer from the same airspace constraints, or the same gridlock on the ground as the three big airports.
The port authority runs all three major airports, and in November added to its portfolio Stewart Airport, about 55mi (88km) from Manhattan and on the west side of the Hudson River in the midst of a rapidly growing suburban area. With just 300,000 passengers a year, it has room for growth. The city's other major reliever, Long Island MacArthur Islip, is about 50mi west, and Southwest has made it an important point.
The airport, which is owned by the Township of Islip, handled about two million passengers last year, but the town fathers have vowed limits to its growth. A smaller airport, the Westchester County Airport in White Plains, 30mi north of the city, has also attracted AirTran and JetBlue. But its owner, the county, has strict limits on expansion of the facility, which handles 1.65 million passengers per year.
Of these, the 2,400 acre Stewart faces the fewest local objections to growth, and vigorous marketing by the port authority has drawn Skybus, the Ohio-based low-fares carrier, which will start services there in January. It will complement AirTran, JetBlue, and regional partners of Delta, Northwest and US Airways.
Those concerned, from the FAA to the airlines to the airports, agree that the "Next Generation" of air traffic control will go far to make New York a smoother operating region again, but that is years off. A major redesign of the East Coast airspace adopted over the summer by the FAA could face lengthy lawsuits. Until then, the Big Apple will have one big problem to boast about.
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