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'Palace' Is No Quick Fix for Airports

GIVE THE Federal Aviation Administration a round of

applause. A small one.

The agency's recent decision to move forward on consolidating three

separate air traffic control operations in the New York region into a single

center was a smart idea. The Crystal Palace, as the proposed new center is

being called, will streamline things considerably, meaning airliners will fly

through the airspace more efficiently and, presumably, in less time.

Trouble is, they won't be doing that before 2004, the earliest projection

of when construction will be completed. Fliers both frequent and infrequent

will meanwhile continue to find themselves in the usual holding patterns while

traveling to or through the area.

Yet, even after the Crystal Palace is up and running, airliners will not

necessarily be landing or taking off any faster than they do now. In fact,

they're more likely to be running later.

Three years ago, according to statistics compiled by the Aviation Consumer

Action Project, a watchdog group founded by consumer advocate and former

presidential candidate Ralph Nader, one of every five scheduled flights

experienced a delay of one hour or more. Today it's one of three flights.

At that rate, if nothing immediate is done to address the nation's

overcrowded and overburdened airway system, it'll be one in two by the time the

Crystal Palace is operating-a prediction all but confirmed by a new study just

released by the FAA. That study forecasts a demand for future air travel that

will far surpass the ability of the nation's busiest airports to accommodate

it.

More runways would certainly help. True, this is another long-term solution

(they require at least three and sometimes as much as 10 years to construct),

but having more concrete strips is crucial to easing some of the awful

congestion that now plagues aircraft arrivals and departures. At present there

are no plans to add runways to any of New York's main airports-LaGuardia,

Kennedy and Newark.

Surrounded on three sides by water and on the fourth by a major highway,

LaGuardia-home of the most delayed flights in the country, according to the

FAA-obviously has limited real estate for adding runways. Newark has more land

area-2,200 acres versus LaGuardia's 685-but a major highway and railroad line

hem it in. And JFK already has two sets of parallel runways, including the

longest one in the country.

But are those the only reasons for not expanding capacity, or not even

asking Islip's MacArthur Airport to share some of it? Airport owners and

operators as well as airlines reap fatter profits when the numbers of flights

and passengers are high. Nice coincidence there.

Yes, airport owners and operators, not the FAA, decide whether to build new

runways. But the FAA could very easily do a few things now that would start to

help ease a worsening situation.

For example, the agency could force airlines to disclose the on-time

statistics of all their flights. You can get this information now, but only if

you ask or go online to certain Web sites. If passengers were told when they

make their reservations that the flight they want at, say, 5:30 p.m. has only a

20 percent chance of departing as scheduled because it falls in an extremely

popular time slot-in which airlines routinely book too many flights-people

would make other plans. Not having to disclose this information allows airlines

to continue to try satisfying demand for popular departure times without being

able to guarantee them.

The airlines, too, could take a sensible, significant step or two, such as

using more wide-body jets on popular routes. There are more than 30 flights a

day between New York and Los Angeles right now. Thirty arrivals and departures

every day on one route alone into two of the most crowded and congested

airports in the country. Among other things, wide-body jets were designed

specifically to fly more passengers in one aircraft so that less aircraft would

be clogging the skies. And yet, since 1995, the major airlines have been using

smaller jets with more frequency. This is absurd.

Another cause of many delays is the current shortfall of reserve equipment

and pilots. Sometimes jets experience mechanical failures and can't fly, and

sometimes crews get sick and can't work-which is especially problematic in the

case of pilots. At best, airlines keep maybe 1 percent of equipment and pilots

on stand-by in case of mechanical failures or no-show crew members. An increase

to 3 percent would help dramatically, but it would also cost the airlines

money they're not willing to spend.

The Crystal Palace is estimated to cost taxpayers almost $150

million-assuming there will be no cost overruns, which is like assuming there

will come a time when death and taxes no longer affect you. The Crystal Palace

is a good start, but how much good will it be in three years if air traffic in

the New York area can't land or take off any more efficiently than it can now?

And how much more will it cost to wait until 2004 to fix problems that need

fixing now?

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