Widebodies and regionals duke it out on the runway

Air traffic has doubled in the past three decades -- and smaller, regional flights are clogging the skies

Published June 10, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

For years I've been urging people to understand that most air traffic delays have relatively little to do with the shortcomings of the ATC infrastructure or a lack of airport capacity, per se. While those things certainly contribute, the chief cause of congestion is the inefficient use of aircraft.

The number of fliers has more than doubled over the last three decades, and so has the number of planes carrying them. Yet the size of these aircraft has been shrinking. An average jetliner now has 135 seats -- far fewer than it used to. Meanwhile, the use of regional jets, which carry up to 90 or so people, has increased 300 percent in the past 10 years alone. Today, R.J.s account for an astonishing 50 percent of all commercial flights. That's half of the traffic carrying perhaps a quarter or less of all passengers -- a highly inefficient ratio.

If ever this struck me in a moment of clarity, it was just a few nights ago as I was working a flight out of Kennedy airport in New York. This is America's largest and most important international gateway, served by scores of carriers from all over the globe. In years past, the JFK tarmac would be lined with the likes of 747s and DC-10s. A spectator could sit and watch as 15 or 20 long-haul, widebody aircraft took off in a row. Not anymore. We were hit with a 45-minute taxi delay, and as our jet turned a corner out along the perimeter of runway 31L, there before us was a breathtaking view of almost the entire runway complex, including the growing conga line of flights queued for departure.

We were No. 19 in that queue, and not one of the airplanes ahead of us -- not one -- was a widebody jet. The biggest was a lone Boeing 757, which holds around 180 people. The rest were a scattering of A320s, 737s and no fewer than 10 regional jets.

Such a scene wouldn't be especially noteworthy at La Guardia or Boston or Reagan-National -- airports that were long ago conquered by swarms of tarmac-choking R.J.s. At Kennedy, though, there's something distressing about it.

Regional jets are important and necessary players in America's air transportation system, don't get me wrong. But I am not so sure that we ought to be looking at 10 of them lined up for takeoff at John F. Kennedy International Airport in the heart of the late-afternoon departure rush.

Twenty years ago, anybody who predicted such a scenario would have been laughed at. Yet here we are. How it all came to pass is complicated. For one thing, there are a lot more airlines than there used to be, and market shares have fragmented. One of the ways these carriers compete is by offering as many flights as possible to the busiest cities. More airlines, more flights, smaller planes.

It's ultimately self-defeating, as delays spike and passengers miss their connections. But the airlines sell it and people buy it.

This is what passengers want, apparently, but, for the heck of it, let's try an informal poll: You're a frequent flier who travels often between Chicago and New York. Instead of a choice between a dozen daily 737s or A320s, a third of which arrive an average of 30 minutes late, how would you feel about picking among five or six widebody departures instead, with all of them arriving on time?

Expecting airlines to consolidate in this fashion is about as likely as their returning to the days of three-cheese omelets in economy class, but I can't help throwing it out there.

Pushing for an embargo of smaller planes during the busiest hours is a similar lost cause, as is so-called peak-period pricing schemes. But isn't there something we could do? How about assigning priority slot times to those flights with the highest number of seats? Is it fair that a 747 with 450 people on board, bound for Beijing, languish behind a half-dozen 50-seaters headed to Syracuse, Richmond and Pittsburgh?

I can't tell you for sure what might work, but I can tell you with reasonable certainty which measures won't work: some of the most oft-touted ideas among them. For details, click here.

In the meantime, if it's any consolation, experts are predicting fewer delays this summer than we've seen over the past few summers.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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