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FAA seeks use-it-or-lose-it airline flight slots to cut costly delays

Planes on the tarmac and landing at John

Planes on the tarmac and landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens on Nov. 20, 2013. Credit: Uli Seit

The Federal Aviation Administration wants to cut back on the number of allowed daily flights at the metropolitan area's three biggest airports and adopt a use-it-or-lose-it policy for flight slots assigned to airlines.

To fight chronic congestion and delays, a proposed FAA rule would set a daily cap on flights allowed at Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty airports during peak travel times -- a move that has drawn criticism from the Port Authority and a Manhattan-based travelers advocacy group.

Under the new rule, between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., Kennedy and Newark would each be limited to 1,205 flights and LaGuardia to 1,136. There currently are no daily limits.

Hourly caps on flights have been in place at the airports for years but were set to expire in October 2016. Those caps, which had been temporary, are strictly codified in the new rule and will stay the same: 81 per hour at Kennedy and Newark; 71 per hour at LaGuardia.

The New York area's airspace is the busiest in the country, and at least 40 percent of nationwide flight delays originate here, according to a 2008 study by the Government Accountability Office. That comes with a significant financial impact: Delays at Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark are responsible for about $3 billion per year in economic losses, and the three consistently rank at the bottom of the list for on-time performance at the nation's major airports.

The Port Authority, which operates the three airports, and the Global Gateway Alliance, which advocates for New York area air travelers, said the caps on flights don't smooth delays but do hurt the economy, job creation and make no sense during a period of growing demand for air transportation.

"Taking 'temporary' caps that depress our airport capacity and making them permanent is the wrong solution for delays," alliance chairman Joe Sitt said in a statement. "In the eight years the caps have been in place, they haven't relieved congestion, since New York-area airports are still the most delayed in the country. And they haven't reduced demand, since our airports now serve more than 112 million passengers a year."

But the Port Authority and the alliance are cautiously optimistic about another piece of the proposed rule, which would try to boost competition and make better use of slots -- scheduled flights assigned to airlines -- by penalizing carriers that don't use theirs.


Slots can vary widely

According to FAA data, the number of slots assigned and the number of flights that actually operate during peak hours at the three airports can vary widely. Sometimes as many as 15 more flights per hour are scheduled than actually occur, which the agency called an inefficient use of slots.

"The FAA believes this behavior could adversely affect the opportunities for new entrants to begin service at a particular airport or could reduce the choices available to consumers," according to a notice of the proposed rule posted on the Federal Register earlier this month.

Under the proposal, if an airline doesn't use a slot 80 percent of the time for the same flight or series of flights, the carrier could lose it and it could be sold to a competitor -- one the FAA hopes could offer lower fares and different destinations.

The FAA is also proposing a more transparent system for airlines to buy, sell and lease slots among themselves, with details of such secondary sales required to be posted on the agency's website.

And because airlines and airports have complained that some carriers use their slots to limit the competition, the Department of Transportation will review slot transactions that might raise potential competitive or public interest concerns, the FAA said.

"Arguments have been made that incumbent carriers have chosen not to transact with low-cost carriers or new entrants, preferring instead to deal with other incumbent carriers," the agency said.


Behind on NextGen

In announcing the rule, the FAA admitted true relief for delays at New York's airports won't come until NextGen, a sweeping upgrade of the national airspace system that incorporates modern satellite-based technology in the cockpit and in air traffic control centers, is fully implemented.

Airlines for America, a trade group that represents many airlines with slots at New York airports, said in a statement the proposed rule "highlights the problems with the status quo and the need to get NextGen up and running."

"NextGen continues to be behind because [the] FAA has been slow to develop the policies and procedures required to put it to use -- this is unfortunate because it would provide tremendous benefits in the New York airspace," the group said in a statement.

Sitt, of the alliance, said the FAA should focus on bringing NextGen to New York faster to reduce congestion instead of tightening operations at three of the country's biggest hubs.

"The FAA should be concentrating on new NextGen air traffic technology that will meet passenger demand for more flights and fewer delays," he said.

In the first six months of 2014, LaGuardia departures were on-time 73 percent of the time, and arrivals were on-time 68 percent of the time, according to DOT data. At Kennedy, about 76 percent of departures and 73 percent of arrivals were on-time. At Newark, 66 percent of arrivals and 67 percent of departures were on-time.

Of the 29 major airports in the country ranked by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Newark fared worst, ranking 27th in timely departures and 28th in arrivals.

A 90-day comment period on the proposed rule will end April 8, the FAA said.

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