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Gridlock at 30,000 Feet


The situation is difficult, but is it unsolvable? That leads us to the final problem in the airports debacle: Flying is a jurisdictional nightmare, an impossibly convoluted tangle of private and public interests. Airlines are for-profit businesses doubling as vital necessities; generally speaking, they want as many flights as they can get. The Port Authority operates the airports on the most basic level—you want to put in a Cinnabon at La Guardia, you talk to them—and is responsible for runway upkeep and the like but has no say in airborne matters such as route design. The FAA reports to the Transportation Department, which makes all the big decisions regarding routes, fees, and caps and is itself hopelessly partitioned into dozens of divisions that meet only at the top. An observer may, in fact, get the impression that most of the FAA’s time is spent moderating between the airlines and the airports, and sparring with its own employees. “We land the planes,” offers the administration’s spokeswoman, Arlene Salac, when I ask her to describe what the FAA has clear, sovereign control over.

Since you can’t fly a kite in this atmosphere without getting into someone else’s jurisdiction, every major improvement initiative gets bogged down in interagency squabbling. The typical round of discussion goes something like this: A consumer group, a mass-media outlet, or Senator Chuck Schumer demands that the FAA do something. (“If you want to know why these delays occurred, three letters describe it: FAA,” the senator said in October.) The FAA then claims to be researching solutions under the DOT’s aegis, and proposes, say, redesigning some air routes. With every proposed solution, potentially affected constituencies start to complain, prompting the mass media, consumer groups, and Chuck Schumer to demand that the FAA do something. Replay sequence as needed.

To cut through the clutter and infighting, Schumer and others have been pushing for a permanent East Coast air czar: someone to whom individual FAA division bosses, airline reps, consumer groups, the Port Authority, and unions can answer. The controllers and the airline lobby like the idea, as does the Port Authority: “Someone with an elephant-thick hide needs to get in and break down these barriers—between the FAA and the controllers, for instance,” says May. But even without an elephantine hero in the wings, several solutions are being bandied about.

A long-overdue streamlining of the area’s departure and arrival paths could do wonders to ease delays. The Port Authority is proposing (aboveground, all it can do is “propose”) a second major air corridor parallel to the J80. Another plan, called “capping and tunneling,” seeks to put some flight paths directly under others, with clearly defined “floors” and “ceilings,” the way Teterboro’s lie under Newark’s. This September, the FAA finally pushed through a redesign plan that would reduce delays by 20 percent over the next five years. Among other things, it would improve final-approach courses for Newark and La Guardia, attempt to solve the conflict between JFK and La Guardia routes, and establish a new arrival path into Philadelphia. Sadly, however, all attempts at airspace redesign tend to run into the most predictable trap: nimby concerns. Already, there are five lawsuits filed against the FAA’s redesign plan, in Rockland County, Fairfield, Elizabeth, Bergen County, and suburban Philly. So far, there’s no injunction, but the combined power of the lawsuits, and the fact that outraged suburbanites make an irresistible voting demographic, could easily hamstring the plan.

For many years, FAA rules required that planes be kept at least three miles apart. Last year, buckling under the volume of aircraft in the air, the FAA changed its guidelines to allow 2.5 miles of separation. NextGen, a space-age system designed to replace the current network of radar towers with GPS satellites, is supposed to allow planes to fly even closer together, which would allow more aircraft in the sky at the same time. The system, which comes with a price tag of $15 billion, was originally supposed to arrive at the nation’s airports by 2015. These days, 2025 seems a likelier time frame for its completion. Dean Iacopelli, the president of the air-traffic-controllers union, doesn’t buy it: “From the perspective of an air-traffic controller working in New York, no technology exists that could let me handle more planes in this airspace.” JFK controller Byrnes is skeptical for different reasons. “It’s gonna be a heck of a reliable system,” he admits. “But if you have GPS in your car, does it make you get to work any faster? The traffic slows down, you slow down.”

The Port Authority has the power to build new runways, but the immutable fact is that the area’s airports may have reached their natural limits. JFK has been expanded over the marshlands seven times. To make it any bigger, says an FAA official who wishes to remain anonymous, “we’d have to condemn a bunch of buildings in the Rockaways.” That, needless to say, is a project even Bruce Ratner couldn’t ram through without causing some kind of uprising. All the agency can offer at our three airports in the near term is more “holding pads”—the idea being that idling planes might as well get serviced while they wait.


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