Flier Beware

Photo: Beth A. Keiser/AP

On a frigid winter evening not long ago, a few thousand feet above Queens, the pilot of a US Airways 737 was coming in for a landing at La Guardia Airport. He was seven and a half seconds away from the tarmac – wheels out, lights on, all clear – when along came the unthinkable. Out of the darkness, he spotted the American Airlines logo closing in from the right, getting bigger and bigger. When you’re this close to the ground and you see something you don’t want to see – like another airplane heading for you – tapping the brakes is not an option. The two planes missed, but not by much. A few hundred feet. Seconds. “Close call, huh?” the pilot said to the tower. “What’s going on?” Which is just what the guys in the tower were thinking. “I’m not sure,” the air-traffic controller said. “He just took the shot, and … whew! It was a slow roller, sir.” An uncomfortable silence followed – until the controller decided to try a little gallows humor. “What color were his eyes?”

That was January 23, 1998, at 6:19 p.m. Three months later, practically the same thing happened – with just twenty feet of wiggle room – apparently because of a spilled cup of coffee in the control tower. It happened eight months after that, too, during a light rain – and it happened again twice last year, the worst year ever for La Guardia air traffic.

It keeps happening because at La Guardia, the world’s busiest small airport, runway choreography is timed for maximum efficiency; arriving and departing planes are only seconds apart. The hurdle is La Guardia’s famously outdated, short, intersecting runways, surrounded mostly by water and tormented by low-slung clouds. For more than a year now, the National Transportation Safety Board, which has investigated some of these near-tragedies, has urged the airport to space its takeoffs and landings further apart. They want to slow things down.

But the Federal Aviation Administration – which has the right to disregard NTSB recommendations, and has thousands of planes to push through New York each day – doesn’t want things slowed down. Neither do the airlines, which have enough trouble getting in and out of La Guardia on time. And neither – let’s face it – do many passengers, who’ve been groaning about delays for years. “This safety recommendation would unnecessarily impact the National Airspace System,” the FAA replied to the NTSB in a memo last September. “Departure slots would be lost.”

“The traffic is all climbing, diving, swerving, to get in and out of the busiest airspace on the face of the earth. Worldwide, New York is the challenge.”

Last fall, after yet another close shave, an exasperated 757 pilot had enough. “After 34 years flying in and out of La Guardia, I now feel La Guardia has become a dangerous airport,” he wrote in a complaint to the Aviation Safety Reporting System, an anonymous whistle-blower service. “Approach, tower, and controllers are stressed to the max. Air-Traffic Control is trying to stuff too many aircraft into too small an airport. I strongly feel La Guardia is an accident waiting to happen.”

It had to happen sometime. After years of more and more flights and longer waits, we’ve finally hit critical mass. What was once a punctuality problem is now a safety problem – not just at La Guardia, the heavyweight champ of delays, but also at JFK and Newark. The fates of all three are linked by the logjammed airspace they share.

Since 1996, New York air traffic has increased by a third, but the number of operational errors – FAA jargon for controller slipups – has jumped by 61 percent. Operational deviations, the label for slightly less life-threatening mistakes, have almost doubled. This year, New York controllers will screw up at least 70 times. And that’s if we’re lucky. “It’s not because the controllers aren’t good,” says Mary Fackler Schiavo, a former Department of Transportation inspector general. “It’s because they’ve been overworked.”

Things aren’t that much safer on the ground. As the number of scheduled flights increases, the risk of two planes’ ramming into each other on a crowded runway jumps exponentially. This year – again, if we’re lucky – JFK, La Guardia, and Newark will all weather four ground incursions, the FAA’s term for close shaves on the tarmac. “Our study of close calls – and La Guardia certainly has its share of those – showed that when traffic doubles, the risks don’t double; they quadruple,” says Arnold Barnett, a statistician from MIT’s Sloan School, who studied the risk of future collisions at the FAA’s request.

How things got this bad is obvious – too many planes trying to land on too few runways. Obsolete almost since the day it opened, pint-size La Guardia is now a punch line, like the Van Wyck. But what’s not widely acknowledged is how, as the system frantically spends more dollars to fight delays, other equally vital functions get shortchanged. Ramp crews are pushed to cut their flight-turnaround times in half and prepare substitute planes faster. Flight dispatchers – who are also responsible for signing off on safety regulations – spend more time hastily recalibrating routes, and less on each individual plane. “Airline profitability is directly dependent on the amount of time they spend in the air and not waiting on the runway,” says one Washington lawyer who works for the airlines. The whole culture of aviation is geared toward working the problem instead of fixing it.

New technology can ease the burden – when, or if, we get any. Every decent-size boat on the Sound has a global-positioning system, but U.S. jets still don’t. The FAA has yet to install a crucial radar technology to protect JFK and La Guardia from wind shear, the freak gusts that slap planes out of the sky (though every other major airport has it). Much of the air-traffic-control world still seems to be experiencing aviation in a Cold War context. The primary communication link between the La Guardia tower and the air-traffic command center in Washington is a black rotary-dial telephone. When I ask Leo Prusak, the control tower’s traffic manager, if he needs better equipment, he’s too busy working the problem to think about it. “I don’t even know,” he says. “I mean, we don’t spend our day in that realm.”

The safety gap extends to security against guns and explosives. Everyone from the FAA to the FBI acknowledges that New York is still a top terrorism target, but bomb-detection methods are lagging. Checked luggage on domestic flights is hardly ever scanned by metal detectors. In 1998, Congress mandated the installation of a new device for sensing explosive chemicals in baggage – a response to the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, ten years earlier. Today, it’s at more than 100 airports nationally, but fewer than a half-dozen machines serve all of JFK. And at every New York airport, the guards who handle the metal detectors and protect the gates – hired by companies contracted by each airline – receive minimal training and rarely make more than $7 an hour. “The fact is, the airline industry puts its money where its priorities are,” says Bill McGee, a former flight dispatcher who covers the industry as editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter. “We’re basically getting what we pay for.”

Even when the FAA can step in, it has problems dictating policy – especially to the dozens of foreign airlines flying into New York. “It’s an undeniable fact that there are two sets of rules in place, and the rules for foreign carriers are less stringent,” McGee says. The results can be dreadful: In 1990, an Avianca flight from Colombia crashed over Long Island because the pilot used the wrong English phrase to say he was low on fuel. The descent and crash of Egypt Air 990 after liftoff from JFK two years ago was prompted, according to the NTSB, by a mentally unstable co-pilot who might have been screened out if he’d been subject to FAA-mandated medical testing.

But even if everyone follows the rules, the skies keep getting more crowded. The FAA projects that over the next decade, demand for flights at La Guardia will increase by 17 percent, or about 200 takeoffs and landings day – which is a bit of a shock to the Port Authority, which manages the airport and says it’s physically impossible. Newark is expected to rise by even more – another fantasy scenario, according to the Port Authority. “You’re looking at more planes in a smaller space, so you’re eroding the margin of safety,” says Bob Ober, a pilot who serves on the Air Traffic Procedure Advisory Committee, an interagency panel chartered by Congress. “We’re hoping we don’t have any system failures with radar and communication and planning. The idea here is, when these systems fail, will the redundancy programs be enough? We’re pushing the envelope here with everything.”

Last year, Congress deregulated flights at La Guardia, leading to a near-complete shutdown of the airport. The FAA, airlines, and Port Authority restored the status quo by agreeing to a provisional cap on takeoffs and landings without resolving the underlying problem. And the commercial-airline industry, with the second-largest lobby in Washington next to Big Tobacco, has just one response: Expand. Grow your way out of the problem.

“Increasing capacity is the only appropriate response to the public’s needs,” said Edward Merlis, a lobbyist with the Air Transport Association, at a Senate hearing in March, “and, in the long run, the only response that the public will accept.”

The FAA’s regional air-traffic-control center – the tracon, for short – is an unmarked white stucco building just off the Meadowbrook Parkway in Garden City, Long Island. Inside is a vast, shadowy amphitheater filled with controllers spinning track balls, their faces illuminated by the glow of computer monitors. A decade ago, the tracon employed 90 controllers; now there are 265. Their job is to keep tabs on every plane within 100 nautical miles (115 regular miles). They’re the ones pilots talk to when they’re just beyond the reach of an airport control tower. Planes farther out are handled by controllers at the New York Center in Ronkonkoma, Long Island.

The vibe is decidedly low-tech: The computer screens look like a networked game of Airplane Asteroids. The object of the game is to stop blips from hitting each other. And they’re good at it, too: Operational errors have gone down in the past five years, while they’ve gone up 61 percent at Ronkonkoma.

It seems I’ve picked a bad time to stop by the tracon. “Please don’t tape me – we are very busy!” shouts a controller in the middle of the amphitheater. The problem today, I learn, is cloud cover over one of La Guardia’s runways, a few miles away. This runway runs parallel to runways at Newark and Kennedy, so the controllers can usually work the problem by guiding planes in and out like preschoolers, in straight, orderly lines. But today, La Guardia has had to switch over to Runway 13 – the other runway, the one that goes in precisely the wrong direction, northwest to southeast. And that’s thrown everybody at the tracon into a tizzy. Everybody hates Runway 13.

To find the right angle to land, planes are backed up over Connecticut and New Jersey, routed in loops as wide as some counties. Gridlock starts spreading like an epidemic. Any pilot trying to get in or out of Newark, Kennedy, and Teterboro is being told to take a number.

“It’s our absolute worst operation for efficiency, and you happened to hit it,” says Phil Barbarello, the fifteen-year veteran tracon controller who is showing me around. “This happens about a half-dozen times a year.”

The entire airspace over New York City has just been shut down because of an April shower.

In general, though, the days of planes stacked up like pancakes over an airport are behind us, says Frank Hatfield, an ex-Navy man and a former air-traffic controller with a bushy white mustache who moved here from Virginia four years ago to be the FAA’s airspace czar. It’s a policy change that he’s proud of: Rather than let a plane take off for an airport that’s experiencing delays or expecting a storm, a flight dispatcher will simply keep that plane on the ground.

But something else has changed, too, Hatfield says – the pressure. At La Guardia, air traffic used to come and go in spurts. Now the pace is unrelenting. “Generally, there were periods in the day, you know, between 11 and 11:45, where there was gonna be a lull here at the airport – so the controller can breathe in, breathe out, and just sit back and do a little mental refreshment while waiting for the next big rush,” he says in his drawl. “Now you walk in and you strap on a headset and you don’t stop until you take that headset off. And it doesn’t matter what time you go in and do it. There are no lulls anymore.”

Planes can only enter and exit New York’s airspace through eight “gates” in the sky – four to the north and four to the south. Add to that the fact that the busiest domestic routes in the U.S., maybe the world, are the New York- Boston and New York-Washington shuttles. “Each day, all the airports are competing to get planes through them,” Hatfield says. “These guys in New York – the traffic is all climbing, diving, swerving, to get in and out of the busiest airspace on the face of the earth. Worldwide, New York is the challenge.”

Hatfield pauses for effect. “And you would ask, well, how come this airspace is so screwed up? Simple answer: When this airspace was designed back in the 1960s, we didn’t have this many airplanes. We’re trying to run millennium traffic on crap that was designed 40 years ago, and that just don’t cut it.”

New technology could solve some of these problems, of course. But the last time the FAA tried to modernize the nation’s air-traffic computer system, the project went more than $2 billion over budget and was never completed. Last year, after years of system crashes, the controllers at tracon finally got new computer screens. They’ve yet to install new software that goes with them. (That’s scheduled for 2008.) “There’s been great difficulty in getting the new equipment to interface with the old,” says Mary Schiavo. “The FAA had no choice but to bring it on piecemeal.”

The technology waiting game is familiar to New York. The FAA fell six years behind schedule and went $92 million over budget developing the Airport Movement Area Safety System (amass – or amiss to its critics), which alerts the tower to potential runway collisions. It’s supposed to be up and running in New York in 2002 – but the latest incarnation is next to useless at a small airport like La Guardia, where collision warnings will blare with just a few seconds left to do anything about them. Another system, called Airport Surface Detection Equipment – a sort of surface radar that could help controllers – was originally scheduled to be in place this year; now it may not arrive before 2007.

But these gadgets are Tinkertoys compared with what Hatfield’s planning. To really work the problem, he wants to rip up the maps and start all over again with an $11 billion redesign of New York’s airspace – the first skyway makeover in FAA history. He and his team of traffic planners want to start by taking the small tracon airspace region (where planes circle and wait to land now) and the larger “Center” region that surrounds it (the one with the control center in Ronkonkoma) and making them one and the same. Not only would this mean one less handoff between air-traffic controllers, but New York’s waiting room in the sky would get bigger – the sponge would absorb more before becoming saturated.

All the FAA needs, Hatfield says, is a new building that merges the Center and the tracon into one megafacility. The official name for this is the New York Integrated Control Complex. “You ready for this?” Hatfield says. “If you say those words, New York Integrated Control Complex, it sounds out as nice.” He laughs. At the FAA, people have taken to calling it the Crystal Palace.

What Hatfield likes most about the plan is that it would also allow less distance between planes. It eliminates the Center airspace, where federal regulations force planes to stay 5,000 feet apart, and replaces it with an expanded tracon, where planes can be as close as 3,000 feet. The airline industry, not surprisingly, loves the idea – anything’s better than curbing the number of flights.

“La Guardia has become a dangerous airport. Controllers are stressed to the max. They’re trying to stuff too many aircraft into too small an airport.”

Of course, if you’re sitting in a plane, you might prefer to be 5,000 feet away from your neighbor and not 3,000 feet – especially in a system that’s slow to get new collision-prevention equipment. “They are trying to decrease separation between aircraft,” cautions Captain Steve Luckey, chairman of the national security committee of the Air Line Pilots Association. “You can look at that as a safety factor. You’ve already got controllers that are maxed because of the traffic. You’ve got equipment that’s old and a growing population. You’ve got an industry that’s dying to make money. So they’re trying to get people in the seats. It really taxes the system’s ability to handle large numbers of people.”

Hatfield isn’t worried about this. If it were unsafe, he says, he wouldn’t be considering it. “This ain’t never been done anywhere else on earth,” he says. “The union and management are on total agreement in the eastern region. It’s been bounced off of aviation experts all over the world. The only reason you wouldn’t do it is politically you couldn’t do it.”

When I ask what he means by “politically,” he smiles. The FAA has already convened dozens of community meetings this year to deal with the revision of New York’s airspace, and construction of a Crystal Palace will require that same level of community review. “We are blessed with having the most vocal public of anywhere on the face of the earth,” Hatfield says. “God bless ‘em, they pay my salary, they should be loud – ‘I don’t care where you put it, I don’t care if you screw up the neighborhood five miles away. Just don’t put it in my neighborhood.’ And those people are very well represented by some of the most powerful politicians on earth.”

If the plan gets the go-ahead, the airspace redesign won’t happen until 2004 – around the time that studies show air traffic moving past the breaking point. So it’s a race, really.

And yet there’s a reality to New York delays that even rejiggering the tracon boundaries can’t master. According to the FAA’s own estimates, only 11.8 percent of New York’s delays can be blamed on airspace inefficiency. “There’s a very small portion of them that we actually have any level of real control over,” Hatfield admits.

The other 88.2 percent – caused by weather, mostly, and mechanical problems – aren’t going anywhere. The visibility problem – the April-shower shutdown – will be with us for as long as there is a La Guardia.

Kennedy Airport, June 24, 1975: a wind shear knocks an Eastern Air Lines flight into light stanchions, killing 113 people. The FAA throws millions into developing a technology that can detect these riptides in the air.

Thirteen years later, in 1988, the FAA unveils Terminal Doppler Weather Radar – a big 37-foot white ball that sits atop an 82-foot metal tower.

Today, thirteen years after that, the big ball has been installed at 46 airports around the country, but it’s still not here. We can begin by thanking then-senator Al D’Amato, who, bolstered by neighborhood complaints about the radar’s garish looks and potential health impact, forced the FAA to waste time testing a different device made by the Unisys Corporation – yes, the same Unisys Corporation that D’Amato’s brother, Armand, got too chummy with, resulting in a conviction (since reversed) for mail fraud. Stonewalled, the FAA decided to wait until Al left office.

D’Amato is long gone now, but we still have no big ball. Environmental lawsuits and a last-minute objection by the Interior Department delayed it again. It was supposed to be up last November, but it was damaged by, of all things, a wind storm.

It’s taken a year for the FAA to find spare parts. Installation is rescheduled for next month. Thirteen years after the technology became available.

The Walther 9-mm. on Bo Dietl’s hip is easy to spot. He leans to the right a little as he lumbers around, and his right pants leg is hanging a good deal lower than the left one. But in an hour at JFK’s new Terminal 4, which opened in May as part of a $10 billion renovation (featuring a new shopping mall), we pass two dozen security guards, and not one is armed. Nobody stops him.

He laughs. “We’re in the terminal now – the state-of-the-art terminal – and you know, it’s beeeauuutiful,” says the decorated ex-homicide detective from Queens, now a Don Imus regular who runs several security businesses and chairs the New York State Security Guard Advisory Council. There’s just one guard outside, and her job is to make sure people don’t park at the curb. “You go to an airport in Europe – you’re going to see paramilitary people there.”

New York airports are still considered prime targets for terrorism. But the pressure of flight delays adds to the pressure not to spend on security. While much of the tarmac is protected by the Port Authority (whose cops do carry guns), the terminals and gates are protected by the airlines, which use subcontractors. Their guards start at $6.50 an hour – a little more than a dollar over minimum wage and less than what they could make at McDonald’s. “It comes right down to who gets the contract the cheapest,” Dietl says.

On paper, the FAA retains regulatory power over the quality of airline security. But Bob Monetti, who lost a son on Pan Am 103 and now sits on an FAA security committee, sometimes notices the airline cart pulling the FAA horse. “The airlines are big contributors to both political parties,” he says. “The trading of jobs between the FAA and the airlines is almost comical. The airlines also decide which congressmen can fly home direct for free to do their fund-raisers. So it becomes important to them. The airlines exert what I consider to be undue influence on Congress – and in that way on the FAA.”

Before being okayed by the airlines, all new safety regulations from Washington have to survive a cost-benefit analysis. The Invision baggage-screening system (which can detect Semtex, the substance that probably was used to blow up Pan Am 103) was mandated at every airport in 1998, ten years after the explosion; but Kennedy still doesn’t have enough machines for every foreign carrier. “You probably need nine or ten just to cover JFK correctly,” says Monetti.

At JFK, Dietl and I see checked luggage being run through one of the machines next to the KLM counter. A few feet away, at SwissAir, checked luggage disappears down the conveyer belts without ever being screened.

“Think about every security system or process we have to install,” says Joe Clabby, another retired NYPD detective, who runs an airline-security company called Corporate Loss Prevention Associates. Clabby has recently had freight clients, hit by the recession, asking him to cut security in half. “If it delays an arrival or if it keeps that plane from unblocking, it costs them a lot of money. For someone to come up and ask for identification when you’ve got twenty people on line, is the airline happy with that? There’s always been that tug of war.”

Given the choice between delaying a flight to track down the owner of an unmarked piece of baggage and taking off and paying the fine, some airlines have to be tempted to do the latter. “Most security companies aren’t even liable if anything goes wrong,” says an attorney in Washington who represents airlines fined for these kinds of breaches of regulations. “Their subcontractor fires a security guy, and then hires him back five or six months later. And nobody really wants these things to go to trial, so they just try to get the fine down and pay it. We’ve settled dozens of these cases at one time.”

Once upon a time, Customs officers at Kennedy just dealt with drugs and smugglers. Now they’re also responsible for ferreting out explosives and terrorists. But the number of passengers and the amount of freight has grown so much, there’s no way to keep up. “The presence of law enforcement is not as dominant now as it was years ago,” says Tom Aroksaar, who manages freight at JFK for Korean Air and has the distinction of having once been mugged by Tommy De Simone (portrayed by Joe Pesci in GoodFellas). “Years ago, it was always Customs in the room. Now you only see them when an examination is required or if there are drug spot checks.”

“Ultimately, unlimited growth is not just a service issue. Increasing ground congestion increases the probability of aircraft collisions.”

In the past five years, the amount of freight has doubled at JFK. In the next five years, it’s expected to double again. But Susan Mitchell, who runs the airport operation for Customs, says almost 100 of her agents – nearly 10 percent of her workforce – left their jobs last year. “Certainly, if I had more staff,” she says, “we could do more examinations and, I believe, find more violations.”

Question: how can the United States have the world’s safest skies if foreign airlines flying here don’t meet our standards?

Answer: We can’t, really. The best example is the 1990 Avianca crash over Long Island. The plane ran out of fuel circling Kennedy, mainly because the pilot had trouble communicating with the tower. The NTSB report cited “the lack of standardized, understandable terminology for pilots and controllers for minimum and emergency fuel states.” Seventy-three people died.

A year later, the FAA launched the International Aviation Safety Assessment program (IASA), which uses international standards to judge the competency of foreign countries’ aviation standards. But the standards are lower – U.S. airlines answer to Federal Air Regulations Part 121, while foreign carriers answer to Part 129, which is less stringent – and failing doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t fly here. Today, if a country’s flight standards pass muster, IASA puts it in Category 1, and its airlines can operate here. If there are violations, IASA puts it in Category 2, and the FAA keeps a close eye on them. Only if the violations are considered major is the country placed in Category 3, the blacklist, meaning none of its airlines can fly here.

A few Category 2 countries do service JFK right now. (Helpful hint: Think twice before flying on airlines from Bangladesh or Greece.) “They’re allowed to come in because the FAA has decided to counter with an increase in surveillance and oversight,” says Anthony Broderick, who launched the IASA program when he was the FAA’s associate administrator for regulation and certification. But there are limits even to that. At Kennedy, the FAA conducts ramp checks of planes from these airlines just twice a month.

Even for Category 1 carriers, the standards aren’t quite the same. Witness Egypt Air 990, whose co-pilot apparently crashed the plane because of an emotional problem. “The fact is, all airmen licensed in the U.S. have to receive periodic medical exams,” says Bill McGee of Consumer Reports Travel Letter. “That’s one thing that varies wildly everywhere in the world.”

A good next step might be to expand IASA’s guidelines. Of the eighteen “technical annexes” of the Chicago Convention – the safety standards agreed on at the 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation – IASA enforces only three: licensing, flight operations, and airworthiness. “I would like to see all of them,” says Broderick.

But that could take years, if it happens at all. “The United States can’t be the world’s aviation-safety policeman,” Broderick says with resignation. “Not only do we not want to pay for something like that, but the other countries have something to say about it, too.”

Leave it to the French not to play along. At JFK on June 27, 1999, an Icelandair 747 with 185 passengers came within 50 feet of colliding with an Air France Boeing 757 cargo plane. The tower’s tape revealed the Air France pilot saying “no hold short.” But “no hold short” isn’t official FAA jargon. Either “cross” or “hold short” would have worked.

The Chicago Convention mandates English as the official language of the skies. “Yet here we are, over 50 years later, and nothing has changed,” Barrett Byrnes, the air-traffic controllers’ union representative at Kennedy, told Congress last year. “The FAA cites lack of enforcement authority.”

Anyone bearing witness to the decline of New York’s airports has become intimately familiar with the perpetual circle of blame. The mayor blames the Port Authority for funneling New York dollars into New Jersey and not ceding complete control to him. The Port Authority blames the airlines for scheduling too many flights and starts lobbying for congestion pricing (the way it’s been doing in Congress this summer). The airlines, in turn, blame the FAA for not updating air-traffic technology to push more planes through (the way their lobbyists have been doing since spring).

The system, paralyzed by finger-pointing, is bursting at the seams. “What can I tell you?” says Anthony Broderick. “You build the L.I.E., and the first day, nobody’s on it – and a few years later you can’t even get on.” The only solution to meeting demand, he says, is to build more, which in turn would only increase demand. “You want more capacity at La Guardia? You’re not gonna get it without another runway. And of course you can’t build one there. So you have to look at alternatives, like bigger airplanes. But then you’re giving up frequency. These are all free-market things that need to be worked out.”

The free market had its chance last year, when Congress, at the behest of the airlines, abolished the 32-year-old slot system that regulated the number of scheduled small, regional flights in and out of La Guardia. The law, known as air 21, ushered in a now-legendary free-for-all. Airlines scheduled as many flights as possible to retain market share. Flights were canceled at the drop of a hat, and La Guardia reported three more controller errors than it did the previous year. Finally, the FAA cried uncle.

“Ultimately, unlimited growth is not just a service issue,” James Whitlow, the FAA’s deputy legal counsel, wrote in a letter last fall to the Port Authority. “Increasing ground congestion increases the probability of aircraft collisions.”

By Christmas, the Port Authority and the FAA had forged a truce with the airlines – a temporary cap on flights at La Guardia. Deregulation having been proved a spectacular failure, the Port Authority now wants to step in with new pricing schemes – surcharges that treat La Guardia airlines like drivers on the turnpike. It could mean higher landing fees all around; it could mean peak “rush hour” pricing; it could mean a onetime auction for slots. But no matter what, the airline lobby promises to fight it.

“I really think it’s a cop-out to say congestion pricing will get rid of delays,” complains Carol Hallett, president of the Air Transport Association. “It’s fundamentally wrong to tell the public that demand for air travel is too great and air travel must be limited. The bottom line is, there will continue to be a congestion problem at La Guardia – but it will be eased by these various tools that are on the way. And is there another runway in the future? Who knows? In Oakland, Jerry Brown is working on building another runway into the bay.”

I run that part about the new runway by Neil Levin, the executive director of the Port Authority, and he bursts out laughing. “Unless the ghost of Robert Moses can appear, that is not something the Port Authority is considering,” he says. “That is not something the local congressional delegation is supportive of. That is not something the community is supportive of. I’m telling you, that dog will not hunt.”

Safety, of course, is always a primary concern – not that the airlines really consider it that much of a problem.

“You could take one U.S. domestic jet flight at random every day – on average, you could go 32,000 years before becoming a statistic,” says Hallett. “So if King Tut had been a frequent flier, he’d still have 7,000 years of flying left.”

An uncomfortable silence. Hallett decides to break it.

“So, um, it puts a little humor into a deadly serious issue.”

Flier Beware