Congestion at New York City-area airports will likely become even worse in the next five to 15 years as demand for air travel grows, according to a new federal report.
Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty International airports already regularly are among the nation's most delay-plagued airports. If nothing is done to curb congestion by 2020, says the Federal Aviation Administration's most recent report on airport capacity, 65 percent of Kennedy's busiest operating hours will see flight delays. At Newark, 68 percent of those peak times will encounter delays compared with 72 percent at LaGuardia.
Those numbers will grow to 93 percent at Kennedy, 91 percent at Newark and 81 percent at LaGuardia by 2030 if no improvements are made, the report predicts.
Current statistics, which are expressed in the actual number of delayed flights, paint a congested but less extreme picture.
Last year, 23.1 percent of flights at Kennedy were delayed, 26.2 percent of flights were late at LaGuardia and 29.2 percent were late at Newark, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data. The airports placed 16th, 25th and 27th, respectively, in on-time arrival and departure performance out of the 29 biggest airports in the nation.
Aviation analysts say the area's current situation and the FAA's prognosis is a serious problem.
"It's a horrible situation that definitely constrains the growth of the whole economy of the whole New York City metropolitan area," said Robert Poole, an industry expert who has advised the FAA and serves as director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a think tank.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the three airports, said it is making improvements designed to speed arrivals and departures.
The report, which does not discuss smaller area passenger airports such as Long Island MacArthur, said NextGen, the upgrade of the nation's airspace system to satellite-based technology that has been touted as a cure for flight delays, will help with congestion but won't solve the problem in New York.
In January, a proposed FAA rule that would cement hourly flight limits at Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark in an effort to ease delays cited NextGen as the golden ticket for relief in New York City. But the report said NextGen will reduce delay growth at the airports only about 26 percent by 2030.
Since air travel is so closely linked to economic activity, airport delays are more than a headache -- they result in monetary losses for fliers, businesses and airlines. The Global Gateway Alliance, a New York City travelers advocacy group, has estimated that delays at the three major area airports result in about $3 billion per year in economic losses.
"It probably reduces, to some degree, business location in New York City," Poole said. "There are advantages to being in New York City, but the air travel situation is horrendous."
More passengers, cost cuts
Airports are congested, the report says, when average delays of seven minutes or more persist for at least 30 percent of peak hours, between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. Kennedy and LaGuardia currently are approaching "severe" congestion, which is reached when flights are delayed at least 15 minutes for more than 50 percent of peak hours.
The congestion problem at the metro area's major hubs is driven by growing demand that has outstripped the positive effect of a profit-boosting strategy during the last recession: When fuel prices skyrocketed, airlines began consolidating service at the busiest airports and focusing on making money through packing more passengers onto planes.
For a while, traffic growth was flat. But airports across the country lately have seen record passenger numbers. The Port Authority said its three major airports reached new highs in 2014: Kennedy had 53.2 million travelers, LaGuardia saw 26.9 million, and Newark had a record 11.7 million international passengers among its 35.6 million total fliers.
"Airlines are . . . using fewer small planes and more large planes, which is a good thing, but ultimately you have increasing demand and you have to meet that," said Stephen Sigmund, executive director of the Global Gateway Alliance.
The Port Authority, which also operates Stewart International Airport in Newburgh and Atlantic City International in New Jersey, said the number of passengers at its airports is expected to jump from 117.3 million passengers in 2014 to at least 130 million by 2030, almost 11 percent.
Runway adds 'impossible'
The FAA report's No. 1 suggestion for combating delays as demand grows: build more runways. But that's an expensive and politically explosive proposal at urban airports, especially LaGuardia and Kennedy, where environmental groups and neighbors who've battled airplane noise can prove powerful opponents.
"All the reading I've ever done about the New York City-area airports, the basic assumption was we're never going to add more runway capacity because it's politically impossible and way too expensive," Poole said.
Poole said NextGen will allow pilots and air traffic controllers to know exactly where planes are located in real time. So once that technology is in place, runways could be built without taking up more space, which would contain costs if not neighbor complaints.
"You can coordinate simultaneous landings and takeoffs on closely spaced parallel runways -- that was not possible when those airports were designed," he said. "There are two existing runways at Kennedy where you could put a third runway in between safely."
Some experts suggest alternatives to laying new pavement. Both the Reason Foundation and the Regional Plan Association, a Manhattan-based urban research organization, have studied hiking landing fees during peak hours to encourage airlines to fly early in the morning, late at night or to use bigger planes and operate fewer flights during busy times.
Capacity issue has critics
But others aren't convinced there's a capacity problem at the three major airports.
The Port Authority has long derided the FAA's "slot rule," an order in place since the mid-2000s that limits the number of takeoffs and landings per hour. At Newark and Kennedy, it's 81. At LaGuardia, it's 71. The Port Authority has called this number "artificially low," and the Global Gateway Alliance has said it stifles economic growth while demand for air travel is soaring.
Last year, none of the three airports averaged enough flights per day to even meet the flight caps, and the FAA report notes that if those strict caps are kept in place, congestion won't worsen. But demand for air travel in the next five to 15 years is expected to swell above the existing limits, according to FAA forecasts.
Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Co., a Port Washington-based aviation consultancy, said it's hard to say what the actual flight capacity of an airport is because the system of takeoffs and landings is often so disorderly. "Without knowing what the capacity is," Mann said, "you're treating the patient without knowing what the disease is."
Mann said his company developed a program at a handful of airports across the country to tighten the schedule of landings. The plan: Inbound planes land one per minute, give or take several seconds. Sometimes the pilots have to push the throttle or back off a little to make the goal, but Mann found that by the time 60 planes met their targets, the time savings for aircraft at the back of the line could amount to an hour or more.
The metropolitan-area airports are three of six that either already face severe congestion, or will by 2020. But the others -- Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, San Francisco International and Philadelphia International -- have options in place to combat the problem, the report said.
In Atlanta, using larger planes and airlines balancing their flight schedules will ease much of the projected congestion, the report said. In San Francisco, new NextGen technology is expected to wipe out capacity concerns. And in Philadelphia, new runway extensions will ease arrival delays, though a new parallel runway is also needed, the report said.
So far, the Port Authority has built high-speed taxiways to move planes quickly from runway to gate and end-around taxiways at Newark to keep arriving flights from disrupting departures. At Kennedy, ground metering holds aircraft at the gate until they're cleared for takeoff, cutting delays caused by waiting in line. The report said the Port Authority is also studying the feasibility of adding new runways.
But the report isn't optimistic about New York being able to stave off severe congestion in the coming years because of demand, the airports' urban locales, complicated airspace and proximity to each other.
"The congestion problem is so severe in the New York overall area that NextGen alone is definitely not going to solve it," Poole said. "The bottom-line conclusion is that there has to be more runway capacity."