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Kennedy, LaGuardia on-time performance sags

A commercial jet lands on runway 31 at

A commercial jet lands on runway 31 at LaGuardia Airport in Queens, Sept. 3, 2014. Credit: Jeremy Bales

Fewer flights were on time at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports in the first half of 2014 compared with the same period the year before, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

From January to June 2014, departures at LaGuardia were on time 73.08 percent of the time, dipping 4 percentage points from the 77.52 percent mark in the first half of 2013. And on-time arrivals dropped to 68.43 percent in the first half of 2014 from 70.66 percent in the first half of 2013, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics report.

At Kennedy, on-time departures dropped to 75.73 percent this year from 76.35 percent in the first half of 2013, and arrivals hovered in the 73 percent range both years, with a slight drop in 2014.

Delays in the region's airspace have a serious economic impact, as well as a ripple effect.

A 2008 study on the national airspace system by the U.S. Government Accountability Office said 40 percent of flight delays across the country originate from delays in the New York metropolitan area.

Airport delays -- meaning flights that don't arrive or take off within 15 minutes of their scheduled time -- also have a dismal effect on the economy, jobs and the environment, according to the Global Gateway Alliance, a travelers advocacy group based in New York City.

"The economic costs of flight delays are very high," said Joe Sitt, the group's chairman. "For passengers, delays mean lost productivity and opportunity. For airlines, they mean higher fuel costs and paying to reroute customers."

Sitt said flight delays at Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark-Liberty airports result in almost $3 billion per year in economic losses. A 2009 report by the Partnership for New York City, an organization of leading city businesses, noted that delays caused by air traffic congestion at the three major airports were responsible for more than $2.6 billion in losses to the regional economy that year.


Staggering losses

"If no action is taken, losses attributable to congestion will total a staggering $79 billion over the 18-year span from 2008 to 2025," the report added.

Despite Kennedy's and LaGuardia's struggles with on-time flights, Kennedy improved its standing among the country's 29 major airports for on-time performance, according to the transportation department, partly because many other hubs were pulverized by harsh winter weather this year.

In on-time departures, Kennedy ranked 14th among the nation's 29 busiest airports in the first six months of 2014, eight places higher than in the first half of 2013. And it inched up in arrivals, from 26th in the first half of 2013 to 22nd this year.

LaGuardia, however, was 27th out of 29 in arrivals for the first half of both years, and in takeoffs, ranked 19th in the first half of 2013 and 20th for 2014.

Newark was last in both categories. Long Island MacArthur Airport is not included in the rankings.

Sitt said the tool most needed to free up New York's congested airspace is the multibillion-dollar NextGen, the Federal Aviation Administration's state-of-the-art upgrade to its flight tracking system.

But NextGen's nationwide implementation has been piecemeal and sluggish, the alliance said.

"It's good news that JFK has improved versus competitor airports around the country, particularly with such tough winter weather," Sitt said in a statement. "But the overall picture remains the same. The busiest and most crowded airspace in the country needs a 21st century air traffic control system from the FAA to see real, long-term delay relief and capacity increases."


Out with the old

NextGen, the huge and technologically complex plan for upgrading the nation's airspace, flight navigation and air traffic control procedures, would replace current World War II-era radar-based flight tracking with satellite navigation -- like the kind smartphones use.

NextGen's navigation system -- called performance-based navigation -- and the implementation of new air traffic control procedures would allow planes to fly more efficient, direct routes than they do with current ground-based navigation, saving time and fuel.

In addition, planes would be able to fly closer to each other and could take off and land closer to one another, reducing delays and congestion.

The Port Authority, which operates Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark, has long pushed for NextGen to be tested in the New York airspace, spokesman Ron Marsico said.

The agency has made fixes on the ground at its airports to do its part to cut delays, Marsico said, including high-speed taxiways to move planes quickly from runway to gate, and ground metering, which holds aircraft at the gate until they're cleared for takeoff, keeping them from wasting fuel and cutting delays caused by waiting in line. But NextGen could take those efforts further, he said.

The Port Authority has long sought NextGen's implementation first at its three busiest airports, "which together comprise one of the world's busiest airspaces," Marsico said.

In 2013, 112.5 million people passed through Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark, a record number that grows each year, the Port Authority said.

Critics like the Global Gateway Alliance have blamed the FAA for not bringing NextGen to New York sooner, and they're not alone in their criticism of the slow rollout.

In June, the federal Department of Transportation's inspector general's office released a report laying out obstacles the FAA faces in implementing the improved navigation routes and procedures. It blamed the slow progress on outdated air traffic controller policies, a lengthy flight procedure development process, and a lack of standard training for pilots and controllers.

The report, spurred by congressional concern about NextGen's progress, notes that the use of updated navigational procedures is low where it's available, especially in the New York City area, where it could be crucial to cutting down congestion.


Not up-to-date

Between September 2012 and August 2013, only about 1 percent of eligible flights at the three major airports used navigation techniques that allow planes to fly more precise, shorter paths, according to the report. Outdated air traffic controller policies and a lack of training are partly to blame, the report said.

In a written response to the report, the FAA said it agreed with the findings, and that it's working on an action plan to fully implement the use of performance-based navigation.

Robert Poole, an aviation industry expert who is director of transportation policy for the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, said aspects of NextGen have been successfully implemented in some cities, including Seattle and Houston, but it has come in fits and starts because of budget cuts.

"What everyone would like to see is for the FAA to have a believable schedule for rolling out performance-based navigation to all the metroplex areas. They just aren't in a position to do that, given the budget," Poole said.

"It's not only the budget," he added, "but the FAA is an awful bureaucracy, too."

Some critics have been blunter.

"NextGen is a fraud," said Michael Boyd, president of Boyd Group International, an aviation consultancy based in Colorado. "Every deadline they've brought up gets changed. . . . NextGen is really a giant black hole, a giant vapor hole for money, and the FAA is never held accountable for fixing it."

The FAA said NextGen is in the works at New York's major airports. A spokeswoman said the agency is encouraging pilots and airlines to use the new navigation techniques, which are available at all three airports. In addition, it is testing a transition to satellite-based guidance at one of its New York control centers.

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