By Scott McCartney
August 13, 2007
At 5 p.m. last Wednesday, planes from all over were lining up in the air to land at New York ‘s La Guardia Airport. Over the next hour, 41 flights were scheduled to touch down, but there wasn’t room for them all. Thirty-three arrived late, one by three hours.
With runway space this scarce, you might think that airlines would use big planes that can carry lots of people. Instead, of those 41 flights, 21 involved small commuter aircraft. Five of them were propeller planes.
The nation’s air-travel system approached gridlock early this summer, with more than 30% of June flights late, by an average of 62 minutes. The mess revved up a perennial debate about whether billions of dollars should be spent to modernize the air-traffic control system. But one cause of airport crowding and flight delays is receiving scant attention. Airlines increasingly bring passengers into jammed airports on smaller airplanes. That means using more flights — and increasing the congestion at airports and in the skies around them.
At La Guardia, half of all flights now involve smaller planes: regional jets and turboprops. It’s the same at Chicago ‘s O’Hare, which is spending billions to expand runways. At New Jersey’s Newark Liberty and New York’s John F. Kennedy, 40% of traffic involves smaller planes, according to Eclat Consulting in Reston, Va. Aircraft numbers tell the tale: airlines grounded a net 385 large planes from 2000 through 2006 — but they added 1,029 regional jets — says data firm Airline Monitor.
As air-travel woes have spread, some aviation officials and regulators, including the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, have begun saying delays could be eased if airlines would consolidate some of their numerous flights on larger planes.Just two problems with that. One is that airlines like having more flights with smaller jets. The other is that passengers like it, too.
Illustrating the phenomenon, three airlines flying out of midsize Raleigh-Durham, N.C. , send 21 flights a day into La Guardia. All but one of the flights use small planes.
That’s fine with David Sink, a Durham insurance executive. “There are lots of flights, so time-wise, it worked out well for me,” said Mr. Sink recently, taking an American Eagle flight home. Given a choice between more flights or larger planes, he’d prefer more flights.
The FAA once could tackle congestion by limiting the number of takeoff and landing slots. But Congress in 2000 voted to phase out slot requirements to open up the airways to competition from low-fare carriers. The FAA sets a limit on how many takeoff and landings it can safely handle at each congested airport, but airlines are free to schedule as they want. If there are too many planes because of overscheduling or just delayed flights stacking up, the FAA slows down the flow of airliners.
At La Guardia, for example, the FAA allows 75 aircraft movements — a takeoff or a landing is one movement — an hour for commercial airlines in good weather. If high winds or storms drop that rate lower, the FAA asks airlines to cancel or delay flights. And sometimes the bottleneck comes not on runways, but in the air when planes from multiple airports are trying to get a spot on specific routes into or out of the area. Much of the traffic into and out of New York meshes together onto specific routes in the Washington, D.C., area; when there are too many planes, it’s like multiple lanes of cars squeezing into a two-lane tunnel.
Trying to tackle airport crowding, the FAA last year proposed a complicated plan to force airlines to increase the average size of the planes they land at La Guardia. FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, questioning the use of many smaller planes and their more-numerous flights, says that “from the standpoint of passengers and from the standpoint of getting the best use out of high-priced real estate, this is not the way we should be going.” But the FAA plan encountered fierce opposition and is in limbo. “A solution eludes us,” Ms. Blakey says.
Smaller cities say they need the small planes in order to be connected to the nation’s transportation system. Only with smaller planes can a city the size of, say, Madison, Wis. , have nonstop service to La Guardia. Travelers, of course, much prefer nonstops, for speed and reduced hassles.
Airlines like the economics of small planes. For one thing, they’re usually flown by lower-paid pilots and flight attendants from commuter subsidiaries or contractors. Smaller jets also let carriers bulk up their schedules without flying lots of empty seats. The combination of smaller jets and more numerous flights makes airlines’ schedules more attractive to high-dollar business travelers.
Those regional jets — planes with fewer than 100 seats — don’t just flit to small towns. Airlines cram them into their big hubs, too. Delta Air Lines flies regional jets between Atlanta and both Chicago and New York . United Air Lines flies regional jets out of O’Hare to six cities — Atlanta, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, Montreal and Charlotte, N.C. — all in the 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. rush. Three-quarters of the flights between La Guardia and Toronto are on planes with fewer than 100 seats. The upshot: 20 flights a day, all competing for a shot at a runway.
The small-plane conundrum is, at least in part, a byproduct of the financial troubles of the airline industry. After Sept. 11, 2001, airlines grounded older, larger jets that were gas guzzlers. The big jets weren’t needed when traffic dropped dramatically after the terrorist attacks. Airlines substituted small regional jets, subcontracting the flying.
Now traffic is coming back. But many airlines have deployed most of the widebodies they have in international flying, which is more lucrative because it faces less price competition. And because of their financial woes, airlines haven’t been adding many large jetliners.
Since 2002, domestic traffic by mainline airlines has increased 3.6% in terms of revenue-passenger miles, which is the number of miles that paying customers are flown, Airline Monitor says. But traffic on airlines’ regional partners — which fly the smaller aircraft — is up 196%. The average size of jets flown by airlines, including the widebodies on foreign routes, is 137 seats, down from 160 a decade ago.
Meanwhile, flight delays have worsened every year since 2003, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. In the January-June period four years ago, just under 83% of flights arrived on time; in the comparable period this year, only 72.7% did.
The three big airports in the New York area are the worst for late flights. But unlike in Las Vegas, what happens there doesn’t stay there: New York ‘s delays cascade across the country.
A late arrival for one flight means a late takeoff for another, which will arrive late in Dallas or Seattle or Denver . Or, a flight from Orlando, Fla., to Pittsburgh might be delayed because the Washington-area regional traffic-control facility moves a stream of New York-bound planes to the west around storms — clogging the route the Pittsburgh flight would use.
The problems don’t arise just in bad weather. Friday, July 13, saw good weather in most of the country. But in what’s called a ground stop, the FAA barred the takeoff of flights headed to Newark . Too much volume forced controllers to keep planes waiting on the ground to take off, sometimes for hours. Continental Airlines says that in 29 of June’s 30 days, the FAA imposed a ground stop or ground-delay program on flights headed to Newark .
In response to Congress’s mandate to phase out slot requirements, the FAA has completely eliminated them at Kennedy. And airlines have poured in more flights. Through May this year, the number of passengers at JFK is up 14% from a year earlier, but the number of flights is up 27%, says the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey , which operates that airport, La Guardia and Newark Liberty. Flights u
sing smaller planes leapt 85% at JFK in that period, says the Port Authority. FAA officials have reduced, but not yet fully phased out, slot requirements at La Guardia.
Searching for a new remedy, the FAA last year proposed minimum average sizes for the planes that fly into and out of La Guardia. Currently, planes using the airport average 98 seats, the agency says. It proposed that airlines’ fleets would have to average 105 to 120 seats, depending on how many of their flights went to small communities. The FAA estimated this plan would reduce delays at La Guardia by 37%.
“Promoting larger aircraft is the only means to increase passenger access to La Guardia,” said the FAA proposal. But opposition from airlines and smaller communities was so strong that the plan is basically dead, says the agency’s Ms. Blakey.
Foes of the plan included the Port Authority, which considers aircraft size at La Guardia an airport issue. The Port Authority says it could bring about larger planes simply by writing aircraft size requirements into gate leases. It says it’s studying such an idea.
Former American Airlines boss Robert Crandall says Congress should let the FAA go back to controlling slots, matching scheduling to capacity. Airport overcrowding is “fixable, but it’s not fixable without major policy change,” the former AMR Corp. CEO said at a recent conference.
Another proposal: Change the structure of landing fees. Airports now set them by weight. A small jet pays a smaller landing fee than a large plane, even though its use of the runway is the same. Why not charge a flat fee per landing, suggest some economists — or even charge the small jets more, to encourage airlines to shift to fewer flights on larger jets?
Yet another idea is to tie landing fees to the level of demand through the day, so they’d cost more at peak hours. This would encourage airlines to spread out flights and use bigger planes, says Dorothy Robyn, a consultant at Brattle Group and former aviation adviser in the Clinton administration. She says the current system “guarantees overuse of the air-traffic-control system because airlines aren’t charged the true cost.”
Airlines say tinkering with landing fees, which are only about 2% of total costs, wouldn’t change their behavior, because customers want the convenient service possible when they use lots of smaller planes. Carriers say less use of small jets would make it harder for them to offer off-peak flights. “We put [regional jets] into some markets because we don’t have demand at certain times,” says David Seymour, vice president of operations control at US Airways Group Inc. Airlines add that less use of smaller jets also would reduce connection options for people on long transcontinental or international trips.
With its commuter affiliates using smaller planes, US Airways flies nine trips a day from La Guardia to also-congested Philadelphia International Airport . There, most passengers connect to other flights. The arrangement allows US Airways to offer New York customers more options for long trips.
Carriers contend that without changing rules, the FAA could do a better job of moving traffic into and out of the Northeast. They note that JFK has four runways, but usually only two are used at once. The reasons are complicated, and include a limited number of permissible flight paths, as well as bottlenecks that can result in the Washington area. A push this year to use three JFK runways at once has had mixed results.
An almost decadelong effort to redesign the designated airways around New York to move airplanes faster and more efficiently is still bogged down in regulatory review. Neighborhoods that might face more noise have been trying to derail the plan in Congress.
Surge in Flights
The FAA says it is doing the best it can with old equipment and a surge in flights. The agency’s Ms. Blakey says she thinks airlines will eventually have to switch to larger jets because of the costs that delays impose on the airlines, in inefficient use of planes and fuel. Even such a shift wouldn’t fix all the delay issues, though, she says: “La Guardia is always going to be a bottleneck.”
With delays climbing, airlines face a tough choice unless the FAA can boost capacity. Carriers have to accept delays, or else reduce flight frequency. Not wanting to risk losing passengers to competitors, airlines are showing scant interest so far in consolidating their numerous small-plane flights into fewer flights with bigger planes.
On Nov. 4, American Airlines will offer new nonstop flights between New York and Flint, Mich. American will send a morning flight to La Guardia and a flight back to Flint at 6:40 p.m., adding to the competition at La Guardia for precious runway space. The jets American will use: 37-seaters.Ê