Image: Waiting passengers at JFK Airport
Richard Drew  /  AP
Passengers wait for flights at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. Between January and April, 38 percent of all flights at Newark Liberty, John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia were either late or canceled.
updated 6/15/2007 5:20:54 PM ET 2007-06-15T21:20:54

When it comes to getting people to places on time, no airports in the country have done a worse job this year than New York’s.

Between January and April, 38 percent of all flights at Newark Liberty, John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia were either late or canceled, leading to disruptions nationwide.

And when planes were late, they were really late.

Folks unlucky enough to be on one of the 15,480 delayed flights from Newark left the ground an average 95 minutes after their scheduled departure time, according to federal figures. The 14,752 late arrivals at LaGuardia were, on average, an hour tardy.

Those statistics come as no surprise to air travelers. Scenes of delayed passengers sleeping on terminal floors, or sitting endlessly on parked planes, have become weekly occurrences.

The question is, can anyone fix it?

A variety of government agencies and aviation experts will take their best shot at the problem in the coming months, including a high-level task force convened by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The group will include airline executives, state officials and other experts, and will study, among other things, ways to maximize runway use and get planes in and out more quickly.

More than easy travel to and from New York is at stake. The city’s airports are a vital cog in the nation’s aviation network, and bad delays here have a habit of rippling far and wide.

“This impacts the entire country,” said JetBlue Airways Corp. CEO Dave Barger, a task force member. As goes Kennedy, he quipped, so goes the nation.

Experts say the panel’s job won’t be easy. A variety of uncontrollable factors handicap New York’s airports from the get-go.

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Bad weather and bad geography are two of them. Minor storms that wouldn’t be a problem elsewhere often block New York flights because of where the city sits on the eastern seaboard.

The airports have outdated runway configurations, meaning they can land fewer jets per hour than modern facilities like the ones in Atlanta and Denver.

Air congestion is at an all-time high. Nearly 1.4 million flights passed through the region’s airspace last year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

“If an airport is scheduled at maximum capacity all day, and you have delays at any time, you can never recover from it,” said R. John Hansman, director of MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation.

Yet there is room for improvement, experts said.

  • The FAA is finalizing approval of a new flight pattern for the crowded corridor between Delaware and Connecticut. Officials hope the reconfiguration can slash delays by 200,000 hours a year. The plan faces opposition from some communities that lie in the path of the new jet routes.
  • The airlines and FAA are pushing Congress to authorize a multibillion-dollar upgrade of the nation’s air traffic control system. Its high-tech replacement would use global-positioning satellites to coordinate traffic, allowing aircraft to fly closer together. “We need to get away from this 1930s radar navigation system,” said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association. The hurdle is the system’s cost and timeliness. It wouldn’t be available everywhere until at least 2025. Infrastructure alone for the next-generation air traffic control system is expected to cost $15 billion to $22 billion by 2025. Users of the system might have to spend another $14 billion to $20 billion, according to the Joint Planning and Development Office. In comparison, air traffic control delays cost U.S. carriers an estimated $6 billion in 2005 alone, according to the Air Transport Association.
  • Building more runways would be the best solution, but it might be impossible in New York, where the existing major airports are out of space. In lieu of that, the Port Authority is purchasing Stewart International Airport, 60 miles north of the city. The Port Authority is paying $78.5 million to acquire a 93-year lease on Stewart. It could handle 1.5 million passengers annually, up from about 300,000 last year. That extra capacity would draw away only a small percentage of the region’s air travelers, but every little bit helps, officials said.
  • Talks are under way over various schemes that would encourage airlines to fly bigger planes out of LaGuardia, which would allow the airport to move more people in less time. Smaller, regional jets have proliferated because they allow airlines to fly more frequently and with fewer empty seats. Airlines say passengers like the change because it has given them more flight options and lower fares.
  • Airlines should also be encouraged to “schedule with integrity,” JetBlue’s Barger said. Some, he said, now make a habit of trying to cram too many flights into too short a time, creating delays because they can’t move planes quickly enough.

All of those changes have the potential to help, experts said. But passengers shouldn’t expect things to get much better anytime soon.

The reason: More people are flying. The FAA is predicting the country’s major airports could be dealing with more than 81 million takeoffs and landings a year by 2020, up from about 62.5 million now.

“We’re going to have pretty severe delays, no matter what,” said Hansman. “If all of the technologies that people are working on were to come to fruition, that would give us maybe a 30 percent or 50 percent improvement, but it still won’t give us what we need.”

So brace yourself, New York.

The city’s airports handled more than 100 million passengers last year. By 2025, the number is expected to reach 150 million.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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