As predicted, US airports are facing a capacity crisis to equal that of 2000. Traffic is back, bringing chronic congestion that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later

There have been warnings for more than a year that US airports are on the verge of the near-terminal congestion that pushed the industry into crisis back in 2000. Ken Mead, inspector general at the Department of Transportation (DoT) and a long-time analyst of the airline industry, says that congestion is coming back, whether measured by flights, boarding, operations or any other metric.

A key gauge of US domestic congestion – flight delays at major tracking airports – proves the point, with a rise in delays for the latest reported month of March. The nation's 19 largest carriers reported an overall on-time arrival rate of 76.9%, slightly worse than in February and heavily down on the 81.3% posted a year ago for March 2004. Although weather plays a role, congestion at airports and terminals was the central cause of delays.

Mead told Congress that in 2004, operations at en route centres were up 1.5% compared with 2000, although tower activity remained below 2000 levels, largely due to a drop in general aviation operations. However, for the first few months of this year through to mid-March more than 25% of flights were delayed at the 55 airports that the FAA tracks, by an average of 50min. By way of comparison, for the same period in the peak year of 2000, 24% of flights were delayed for, on average, 48min.

At the 35 most crucial airports, airline activity was back at pre-2001 levels, with 17 of them above 2001 levels, some dramatically so. Chicago Midway, Las Vegas and Fort Lauderdale, all centres for low-cost carrier, have seen dramatic growth, with Midway alone up 26% due to expansion by Southwest Airlines. And growth will continue. The FAA forecasts that the number of enplanements will have risen from 688 million in 2004 to just over 1 billion by 2016, with domestic boardings averaging annual growth of almost 3% between 2007 and 2016.

The FAA has responded with attempts to streamline the approvals and permitting process for new airport construction, but given the inherent delays in any major public infrastructure project and the continued strength of the environmental movement, this is a longer-term solution. The agency's other longer-term response to congestion, its air traffic control technology update, remains delayed and over budget. Even if the modernisation was to leap ahead, it would still take years to mature and have the desired effect and in any case would not address the question of needed physical infrastructure.

New runways

The USA has opened eight new runways since 1999 and expects seven more to open by the end of 2009, with three more in the planning process. Most of these 15 had been argued for and debated before the congestion crisis began in 2000, and some have been as long as a quarter-century in the consideration and building.

But of the new runways, some are in a better position to help the national system than others. For instance, a new runway at Boston Logan, debated and stymied by local opposition for more than two decades, will not increase Logan operations by any more than 2% when it opens sometime in 2006, according to the FAA. A new runway at Lambert St Louis field, while it could increase operations there by nearly half, will serve an airport that has lost its hub status since 2001, when American Airlines bought out TWA, the dominant carrier there. Since then, Lambert has seen operations fall by more than 40%, the FAA says. A new Cincinnati runway will raise capacity at the Delta Air Lines-dominated hub by about 12% by next year, but is not as central to the national system as certain other projects.

The two runway plans that are most crucial are in Atlanta and Chicago. Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport, another Delta-dominated hub, is expected to open a fifth runway sometime in 2006, boosting its operational throughput by as much as 33%. That is a major achievement given the project's daunting barriers such as the major interstate highway that must be crossed. This will be achieved by lowering the trunk road into a tunnel and building the runway over it. But Atlanta is unlike Chicago O'Hare in two crucial respects: it has strong community support and limited local opposition, in large part because the community is aware of the airport's economic importance to the region and the fact that Delta is one of the two largest employers in the area, the other being Coca-Cola.

By contrast, O'Hare is stuck in local political gridlock, caught between property owners determined to keep their home values up and politicians determined to award lucrative building contracts that create blue-collar jobs. O'Hare, being one of the nation's older facilities, has become surrounded by urban and suburban growth, and these communities have considerable political power.

Political gridlock

As long as O'Hare remains a political battleground, the nation's airlines will lose. And, as is to be expected with an older airport, O'Hare has overlapping or parallel runways. It has seven active runways, of which all but one intersect at one or another point. Hartsfield does not have intersecting runways. Today, it has four runways and is building a fifth. Unlike O'Hare's runways, all of them are parallel, the configuration that allows the highest utilisation.

Indeed, Chicago's political and traffic gridlock – about a third of flights were significantly late in February – are representative of a national dilemma. So, also, is the FAA's short-term reaction: regulatory or as Mead calls it "administrative controls" in the form of a "voluntary" cap on operations. Devised by the agency and the two major carriers at O'Hare, American and United Airlines, the restriction limits domestic arrivals between 07:00 and 20:00. Without that cap, delays at the airport would exceed 2000 levels, Mead says.

When it was introduced in August 2004, the cap was described as temporary, and the FAA noted that it had moved to phase out similar schemes at other airports such as the slot controls at New York LaGuardia. But with the possibility that the Chicago limits could last until 2008, and with little progress on market-oriented solutions such as possible peak-hour pricing at LaGuardia, many fear that these administrative schemes, the antithesis of a deregulation, will remain and possibly spread.

FAA administrator Marion Blakey says airport expansion may be the most meaningful way to resolve congestion, but the agency still finds itself considering newer versions of the high-density rules begun three decades ago as temporary measures.


Source: Airline Business