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
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