Ask the pilot

Airport congestion and flight delays are making travelers insane. A look at what will and won't solve the problem.

Published October 5, 2007 11:13AM (EDT)

On Sept. 28 I woke to the following headline: "Bush Pressures FAA to Act on Flight Delays." With the number of commercial flights soaring to an all-time high, congestion at airports has never been worse. So far, 2007 has been the most delay-plagued year since the government began keeping records, punctuated by a disastrous summer that delayed or stranded tens of millions of people around the country. Even with the low season approaching, there is little relief in sight. Coverage of the crisis has been persistent, with passengers, pundits and politicians expressing frustration and disgust. Now the president has joined the chorus.

"There's a lot of anger amongst our citizens," said President Bush during an Oval Office meeting with Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and Federal Aviation Administration head Bobby Sturgell. "We understand there's a problem. And we're going to address the problem."

That's typically thin rhetoric from our fearless leader, and considering his track record on certain other crises, it's perhaps better if he stays on the sidelines. Nevertheless, he seems to get the point. A call to action has been sorely needed, and maybe a nudge from the top will get things moving. Following their meeting, Secretary Peters acknowledged the urgent need for reform, openly admitting the possibility of imposing mandatory flight reductions at the hardest-hit airports. Other ideas, such as peak-period pricing schemes, are also on the table.

Knowing which proposals might actually help, and which are likely to fail, requires an understanding of how we got to this position in the first place. For the most part, the existing problem is not the result of air traffic control shortcomings, bad weather or any of the excuses passengers are used to hearing. It's an airline scheduling issue, plain and simple. Carriers have created this mess through a self-defeating insistence that frequency of flights is the ultimate key to success. Over the past several years, they have portioned capacity onto smaller and smaller planes making more and more departures. The results of this strategy can be seen on any afternoon at airports such as JFK, Newark, LaGuardia and Washington National, where small regional jets (RJs) account for up to half of all takeoffs and landings. It is not the total volume of passengers slowing things down, it's the inefficient way they are divvied up. In some places, 50 percent of the traffic is carrying a quarter of the people.

How bad does it get? Two weeks ago I was working a flight from Europe to JFK. We landed shortly after 5 p.m. -- several minutes ahead of schedule, ironically -- only to spend the next two hours -- two hours -- taxiing from the end of the runway to our parking position. Our assigned gate was open and available the entire time, but the airport had become a spaghetti snarl of planes. Taxiways were blocked; aprons, clogged. It was literally gridlock -- with scores of 50- and 70-seat RJs jockeying for space with A340s and 747s.

Assuming the airlines will not police themselves into submission, we've reached a point where government involvement is perhaps the best option -- specifically, a mandatory cap on departures at the busiest airports during specific time periods. That's a bold step, but the remaining choices hold comparatively little promise. Let's review some of the commonly suggested alternatives.

1. We need to modernize air traffic control.

Indeed we do. Our ATC system is antiquated and inefficient. Congress is weighing a bill that would use an increased jet fuel tax to fund a systemwide upgrade to satellite-based technology. Said the Wall Street Journal Sept. 27, "Airlines and regulators agree that this upgrade will do much to ease congestion and cut down on delays."

Except that it wouldn't. Though enhancements are long overdue, they would primarily benefit the higher altitude, en-route airspace sectors, with minimal impact where it is needed most -- in and around airports. Benefits would include shorter flight times, fuel savings, reduced emissions and somewhat better traffic management during inclement weather. Those are all good things, but they ignore the fact that a runway can accept only so many arrivals and departures per hour. Taxiways too are easily saturated. Ultimately, we're dealing not with an airspace problem so much as a ground-space problem. Go back for a moment to my two-hour taxi-in at Kennedy. It had nothing to do with airspace or ATC.

There are a few places where airborne flow enhancements can, and have, paid dividends. At Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport, a metering program implemented by Delta has helped cut delays by assigning precise en-route time slots for arriving planes. But this is a Delta innovation, not a government program, and owing to its massive size and number of runways, Atlanta is an easier place to work with than more constricted airports.

2. So why not build more runways?

For lots of reasons, not the least of which are the long and contentious battles that runway construction projects inevitably trigger among airport authorities, politicians and anti-expansion neighborhood groups. At my hometown airport, Boston's Logan International, it took 30 years to get a badly needed, 5,000-foot stub of a runway completed.

No less daunting are the funding and technical issues. Taxiways have to be constructed; complex lighting systems installed; navigational aids put in place; flight patterns developed and test-flown. At Denver, the opening of a sixth runway carried a tab of $165 million. Denver, at least, had the room. A runway suitable for heavier jets needs to be two miles long. At LaGuardia? At Kennedy? At Newark or Washington National? Where would it fit?

3. All right, so how about encouraging carriers to serve underutilized satellite airports instead of saturated hubs: Stewart (northwest of New York City) instead of JFK; Portsmouth, N.H., instead of Boston; Long Beach, Calif., instead of Los Angeles?

This is one of the more annoying and persistent red herrings. Big, busy hubs are just that because of the number of passengers who connect there. People transfer from flight to flight -- from small plane to big plane, from international to domestic, and vice versa. A major airline moving its entire operation to an outlying airport would be one thing (albeit a tremendously difficult and expensive one), but by shifting a portion of operations, it instantly loses millions of annual passengers. Satellite airports offer limited numbers of point-to-point, so-called O&D (origin and destination) traffic, such as leisure fliers heading to and from Florida, but there are virtually no connecting options at all.

If anything, encouraging the use of satellite airports dumps more aircraft into the system. If American Airlines were to begin flying from Stewart-Newburgh to London, it would not do so instead of flying from JFK, but in addition to flying from JFK. Southwest has capitalized by drawing million of fliers into cities like Manchester, N.H., Providence, R.I., and Islip, N.Y., providing an alternative to the hassles of Boston, Kennedy and LaGuardia. But have its competitors at those crowded airports reduced their schedules in response? Heck no. If a certain number of passengers are siphoned away, the tendency isn't to cancel flights outright, it's to reduce the size of the aircraft. A 767 becomes an MD-80. An MD-80 becomes an RJ. The competitor keeps the same number of planes in the air, while Southwest adds yet more. Airline competition is seldom a zero-sum game. The market splinters, and it keeps on growing -- sustainability be damned.

4. What about restrictions on private business jets at large, congested airports?

I'm open to the idea of corporate jets paying higher fees toward maintaining our air system's infrastructure, but these planes do not exceed more than about 5 percent of operations at any major commercial airport, and usually less. If anybody is hogging an inequitable share of sky and tarmac, it's regional jets.

5. If we accept that airline schedules are to blame, how about a fee system that charges airlines a premium to fly at the busiest times?

So-called peak-period pricing is a popular and controversial idea, akin to levying heavy tolls on automobile drivers as a way of reducing downtown traffic jams. In cities like London, apparently, such disincentives have met with success. But jetliners are not cars, and airlines are not private motorists. The result would be higher fares with a minimal effect on congestion. Speaking last week to the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security, Zane Rowe, a vice president at Continental, said that peak-period pricing "will do nothing more than reduce service to small communities, reduce job growth and raise fares for commercial passengers." Rowe is partly right. The bit about small communities is certainly an eyebrow-raiser, now that RJs operate on mainline trunk routes as much as they fly to minor cities. (Out of New York, they service such "small communities" as Chicago, Miami and Dallas.) He's correct, however, about costs being passed along to fliers. With average ticket prices as low as they are, it'd be relatively easy for airlines to pass along a modest rise to customers. You already pay extra to fly at the choicest times (even if your flights don't actually leave or arrive when they're supposed to). You'd probably pay more. For the scheme to encourage any measurable consolidation, fees would need to be fairly radical, which is to say very expensive, and I don't foresee that happening. The airlines are too strong, regulators too timid. Instead, the probable result: pricier tickets, same delays.

Technology will not fix the problem. Neither will scapegoating private jets, patronizing small airports or fantasizing about the construction of new runways. If you ask me, the only hope is for carriers to consolidate departures and wean themselves away from their berserk obsession with regional jets. They can do this voluntarily, or the government can force them to by imposing caps. For example: At Kennedy, no aircraft with fewer than 100 seats shall be allowed to take off or land between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. Or, during that same time frame, each carrier serving the airport must reduce its schedule by a certain prorated percentage that reflects its share of total passengers. (On its own, Delta has come up with a plan to spread a number of its evening overseas departures into earlier/later non-rush-hour slots, when JFK is much quieter.)

On the whole, I am not optimistic. I have little faith the industry will discover the sense of better scheduling, and even less faith in the government coming up with a fair and effective remedy. A year from now, we are likely to be hearing these same howls of outrage, about the same continuing problem -- from the very same Americans who will continue to fly in record numbers.

Try to look on the bright side: Flying is astonishingly safe, fares are cheap, and planes go pretty much everywhere. The cost of an airline ticket is roughly equivalent to what it was in the early 1980s, and it's possible to fly between practically any two major cities in the United States, or in the world for that matter, without so much as a fuel stop. Meanwhile, there hasn't been a catastrophic accident involving a major U.S. airline in nearly six years -- our most impressive stretch ever.

That's weak medicine, I know, when you're stuck in a 50-plane queue waiting for takeoff. If you can find better advice, take it.

Not unexpectedly, President Bush's comments have segued into yet another call for greater airline accountability, reigniting advocacy for a so-called passenger bill of rights, an idea dissected in this space several months ago (see the related stories links at the conclusion of this column). Stories of passengers trapped on grounded jetliners for long hours are making the rounds again. Said Bush after his conference with Peters and Sturgell, "Endless hours sitting in an airplane on a runway with no communication between a pilot and the airport is just not right." Also last week, Jeff Jarvis, host of the popular BuzzMachine blog, posted an anti-airline rant that began with the following: "Air travel may be the first industry based on a business model of kidnapping and imprisonment."

I understand Jarvis' gripe, but couldn't he have made it without resorting to over-the-top hyperbole? As for the president, he's trying to address the same point as Jarvis, but as usual has bungled his words. For the record, planes do not wait on runways, and I assure you that delayed crews are in constant, often frustrating conversation with both ground controllers and their own company handlers. That was certainly the case two weeks ago during our two-hour tour of Kennedy airport. Nevertheless, and despite exhaustive P.A. announcements explaining the situation (and apologizing for it), we were accused by angry customers of negligence, cruelty and incompetence. "Three goddamn hours on a taxiway, that's ridiculous," steamed one passenger.

It wasn't three hours, it was two. It's natural that aggravation leads to embellishment, but caricatures like those above make reasonable debate or analysis more difficult.

One day last summer, I was seated in economy class on a flight into Boston that was only slightly late after battling strong headwinds along the Eastern Seaboard. After we landed, the young woman behind me spoke into her cellphone: "What fucking liars they are. They told us it was headwinds, but obviously we were in a fucking holding pattern. You could see it!"

We were never in a holding pattern. We flew a straight course the entire way, with no ATC slowdowns at all.

Then again, I should hardly be shocked. As I've said before, never underestimate the public's hatred for the airlines. It's open season. It's always open season.

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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