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Gridlock at 30,000 Feet


Some say salvation lies 65 miles north of Manhattan, near exit 17 off the State Thruway. There, the Port Authority has just triumphantly taken control of Stewart International Airport, an underused New Windsor airfield, and is planning to give it a ten-year, $150 million makeover. Officials are positively giddy about it: “There are two runways immediately available!” Even if the project to build a high-speed rail between Stewart and Manhattan is, for now, a pipe dream, the fourth international airport can still take some of the pressure off the system. Eleven million of the area’s customers live upstate or in New Jersey’s Bergen County—closer to Stewart than to any of the Big Three. JetBlue has already begun offering flights out of the airport. ATA, the airline lobby, is less impressed: “God bless them,” says Jim May. “But let’s not forget it’s managed by the same tracon [control center] as the rest of the local airspace. They still have to go south to negotiate airspace.”

Theoretically, one could persuade the airlines to use bigger planes. In fact, this was one of former FAA head Blakey’s pet ideas, and some carriers have been enthusiastic about it. A shift to larger aircraft, however, isn’t a panacea. Aside from superstar cities like New York, Paris, and London, the only way to make most transatlantic destinations economically viable to fly to is to make them easily reachable from smaller communities; thus, the hub-and-spoke system, wherein one takes a light jet from, say, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to JFK and a 747 from JFK to Frankfurt. As jumbos require stronger runways than those found in smaller airports, and a direct Scranton-Frankfurt flight isn’t viable, a switch to bigger planes may leave our Scrantonite out of the loop.

There’s another drawback to larger planes: bigger wake turbulence. “Since Blakey dropped the ‘schedule less flights’ bomb, Continental Airlines has started to consider bigger planes as a means of decreasing the amount of flights,” reads a recent post on FAA Follies, a message board for disgruntled air-traffic controllers. “Wake-turbulence roulette at its finest.” Indeed, when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed on takeoff from JFK almost exactly six years ago, a major factor was a vortex created by a Boeing 747 in front of it. Because so-called wingtip vortices from large planes can hang in the air for almost two minutes, larger jets would need more space between them, which partly defeats the purpose.

This is the latest, and most controversial, weapon in the federal arsenal. On October 19—two weeks after its chief swore in a USA Today op-ed that “caps aren’t the answer”—the FAA announced it was going to ask airlines to limit flights in and out of JFK to 80 per hour for most of the day, and 81 in the evenings. It would mean that JFK, which has twice as many runways as La Guardia, would be handling fewer planes than its little Queens cousin. In fact, the cap would reduce activity at the airport to levels not seen since 1969.

The Port Authority has reacted with barely contained fury. “This is an economic-policy disaster,” says executive director Anthony Shorris. “It defies anyone’s sense.” He calculates that the FAA’s cap plan would cost the region 7,000 jobs and half a billion dollars in lost economic activity. The Port Authority is not entirely impartial—it stands to lose up to $200 million in passenger fees should the plan pass—but it’s not alone in its objection. Governors Jon Corzine and Eliot Spitzer co-authored an angry letter to the DOT, calling the caps a potential “crippling blow” to the region. The emerging common wisdom is that the plan would needlessly strangle the region’s biggest airport and spill flights into Newark (where, you’ll recall, the number of flights isn’t regulated), and they’ll still clog the same general airspace. Newark could eventually get capped as well, but even that won’t help, according to some. The number of flights in and out of La Guardia is already restricted. “And it’s the second-most-delayed airport in America,” points out Shorris. “Which should give you a hint that caps don’t work.”

Airlines aren’t wild about caps, either (Continental, with its Newark hub, is especially freaked out). In addition to reducing the total number of flights, there’s the question of how to distribute the remaining ones. So-called historical distribution of slots to established JFK clients would close the market to emergent players. There might never be another JetBlue, which, for all the side effects, has revitalized JFK and spurred competition in terms of both price and service. Another proposal—allowing airlines to buy, sell, and auction off their slots from a finite total number—would likely lead to excellent service to the parts of the country with the most lucrative airports and miserable service to the rest. Who’d want to waste a valuable slot on a marginally profitable flight to Lansing, Michigan, when you can add another one to highly profitable Miami? The cost of flights to many cities would likely skyrocket.

It’s anyone’s guess as to whether caps—or any proposed solution—will be implemented now, later, or never. “But the very fact they’re focused on the issue is progress,” says Port Authority chairman Anthony Coscia. That, in the airport world, is what may have to pass for optimism. In the meantime, your only option is to game the flawed system, which is what the next nine pages are all about.

Additional reporting by Emma Rosenblum.


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