Airports in New York City, Chicago and other US cities are chokepoints in the country's congested travel system, but are proposed measures to relieve the pressure simply too little, too late?

New York JFK airport remains one of the most congested in the US, with delays last summer up by a third on the year before

The United States is in an aviation slump, if not outright recession. Airlines are cutting flights across the nation, trimming not just spokes but hubs as well. Why then are airlines, airports, Congress and above all passengers expecting a difficult if not downright awful summer for air travel?

The nation, says Air Transport Association chief executive Jim May, is preparing for the worst based on last summer's disastrous level of delays when about one in four flights ­arrived late and the flying public was terrified by the prospect of a cancellation or an hours-long runway hold, which inconvenienced and angered many of the 214.2 million who flew between 1 June and 31 August. And even though about 13 million fewer people will fly in the USA this summer, the system remains as dependent as ever on New York City and its problems, on other chokepoints such as Chicago, and on a system that is generally creaking toward gridlock.

Chip Barclay 
 "The airports system is only as strong as its weakest links"
Chip Barclay
President, American Association of Airport Executives
As Chip Barclay, president of AAAE, the American Association of Airport Executives, says: "The system is only as strong as its weak links. Individual airports can and do take many steps and build, but it's like a computer network the weakest link, the weakest server, determines the strength of the network."

Nearly 10mi (16km) of new runways may have been added at major airports since 2001, according to the FAA, but only two major new airports, in Denver and Dallas, have been built over the past 40 years. With passenger traffic expected to rise 33% by 2015, and potentially double by 2025, the agency says four major new airports will be needed. But building a new runway does not guarantee that an airport's on-time performance improves. Take the case of Phoenix, where the airport opened a new runway in 2000 but found that it still ranked among the top 15 airports for delays because of delays at other airports. And airports fear the St Louis Syndrome: building a major new runway and then finding that its largest airline, in this case TWA, is no more.

Still, airports and airlines are preparing for the worst, in many cases stockpiling blankets and cots, and taking steps to make sure that concessions stay open until the last flight has landed or taken off, or later. Deborah Mc­Elroy, executive vice-president for policy and external affairs at the Airports Council International-North America, says: "We've worked closely with the airlines and we've done so much. But it all depends on the weather and the air traffic control system." Weather accounts for about 44% of all delays, and has stayed stubbornly near or at that level for years, according to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Climate Control

Even though they cannot do anything about the weather, some airports have taken steps in the past few years to do something. At Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson, where one of the nation's few major new runways has been built, officials have also moved beyond laying concrete into making wiser use of the new runway. Hartsfield-Jackson was already the nation's busiest airport and, with 70% of its approximately 85 million annual passengers connecting from one flight to another, it was also the "hubbiest".

The new runway allowed the airport to handle more flights, up to 126 landings an hour in good weather, a 30% increase. By late December of 2006, Atlanta's on-time performance had increased to over 99%, with 19,000 flight operations in one week and only 59 ­delays. That compares with 17,000 flights in the year-before periods and over 1,200 delays. But flights still had to cross at least one if not two active runways.

So in April 2007, the airport built a strip of pavement connecting the new runway to the terminal area by wrapping around the end of the runway. Aircraft taking off now soar over jets winding along this new $42.5 million strip, dubbed Taxiway Victor. The new route requires the approximately 700 aircraft landing daily on the first runway to traverse a longer path, but it has increased the airport's efficiency because aircraft on the two runways no longer interfere with each other. The new runways now handle between 52 and 62 departures per hour, up from a maximum of 48 an hour before. Atlanta has also improved the way it uses its airspace. The FAA has introduced the use of area navigation technology, known as RNAV, which gives aircraft the ability to steer along more precise, predictable routes. This has allowed controllers to create a new arrival path for aircraft approaching from the north east, and another from the north west.

At Houston, a new east-west runway was completed in 2005, and the airport converted another from general aviation use to commercial airlines use. A new terminal brought 23 new gates, upping its overall gate capacity today to 151 from 128 in 2002. Houston is planning on building a new east-west runway, between its two northernmost runways. One of the possible locations for the new runway is just 2,500ft (762m) from the nearest existing runway - proximity made possible by new technology including RNAV.

The airport is also starting to acquire land in the hopes of adding another runway in a decade from now. Last month, Houston's city council took an aggressive step at the airport's urging and moved to institute zoning-type restrictions barring certain types of development around the city's three airports or risk losing future federal grants. City planners are mapping out three concentric "tiers" of land - totalling 178 square miles - around Bush Intercontinental and Hobby airports and a smaller local facility at Ellington Field.

At some airports, the solution is as simple as management attention. Take, for instance, Philadelphia, the big US Airways hub that is within 80mi of New York. The airline had made a hub there before it merged with America West, and since has made the City of Brotherly Love its international gateway for flights to Europe. The airport's on-time rate was under 60% in March of 2007 the stunning 59.3% on-time arrivals rate was in large part a function of a single carrier, US Airways, which has about two-thirds of Philadelphia flights and which has finally devoted sufficient resources to the problem. The airline, based near Phoenix, sent an executive vice-president and others to live and work at Philadelphia, managing it on a daily full-time basis. It is investing about $35 million in the airport, spending on the internal infrastructure of the airport including the baggage-holding and handling area. The airline also trimmed or moderated its schedule at Philadelphia. By this March, just under 72% of all flights ­arrived on time as the airline itself rose to ­second nationally in the on-time rankings.


At Chicago, where O'Hare airport has fallen from its traditional ranking as the busiest but is still among the most delay-plagued, a $15 billion project dubbed the O'Hare Modernisation Project is slowly making progress. The city recently said it would try to complete expansion of O'Hare in 2014 - two years before the city hopes to be hosting the Olympic Games, says Rosemary Andolino of the project. This is the first time that the city has committed itself to a deadline.

But the project remains problematic because airlines are reluctant to fund it, while the city has vowed not to turn to its taxpayers. In any case, a suburban county judge has yet to rule on whether Chicago can bulldoze vacant buildings it acquired. The city does plans to open the first of O'Hare's new runways late this year. By then, another new runway, this one at Seattle-Tacoma, should be open.

Still, consider that one-third of all US flights pass through or start or end their journeys in the New York airspace, roughly defined as the area from Times Square north to the Massachusetts line, south to Philadelphia and west to Harrisburg. Within that, the most complex and complicated airspace in the nation, as ATA chief May calls it, some 12% of all flights account for some 45% of delays and 48% of delay minutes nationally. The FAA is slowly redesigning New York airspace, ­calling for new flight patterns over five states that will affect more than 15 FAA facilities.

Ground Control

But even if the airspace is more flexible, problems on the ground are a major hurdle. No new runways are planned at the three major airports, and there is no room for more anyway. The operator of the three airports, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, has proposed several capacity enhancements such as new ground-surveillance technology and new taxiways.

For now, though, the FAA has temporarily resorted to one of the least desirable solutions: capping or curbing the number of flights at the three airports. Bill DeCota, aviation director of the port authority, says of the caps: "I just don't get the numbers. We've been here 40 years since slot control and the imposed caps mean fewer movements than we've ever had - but LaGuardia for one is still among the most delayed. The good news is we expect about 3% more travellers but the bad news is with the caps we don't know what to expect. I fear a dampening effect on new ­entrants and on competition in general."

For a nation that purports to believe in market-based solutions, restricting supply is anathema, yet that is just what the USA has done. At the same time, the Department of Transportation has proposed allowing individual airports to adopt variable pricing, adjusting their landing fees by time of day in an effort to control their runways' use.

The airport pricing plan comes so late in the Bush administration that few see it becoming policy, but the caps along with the pricing proposals point up the way in which the administration views airports: as test cases. For a system rapidly approaching crunch time, that may be both too much and too late.

David Field regularly blogs on the US airline industry from our Washington bureau.

Source: Airline Business