Image: Busy JFK
Seth Wenig  /  AP file
A busy John F. Kennedy International Airport is seen earlier this summer.
updated 10/12/2007 10:51:18 AM ET 2007-10-12T14:51:18

Simple mathematics explain why New York has become the nation's worst air-travel bottleneck. Almost every day, more planes are jockeying for space in the sky than the region's beleaguered air traffic control system can handle.

Finding a solution to the problem, though, has tied the aviation industry in knots: Do you schedule fewer flights? Or, can you find ways to safely get more jets in the air?

A federal task force made up of airline executives, government officials and aviation groups has been discussing both approaches during a series of high-stakes meetings over the past three weeks.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters convened the group in late September, and gave it a warning: Find a fix for chronic delays at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and its sister airports, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty, or be prepared to face a federal order reducing the number of allowed flights.

The talks, led by the Federal Aviation Administration, have been closed to the public, but participants report that one of the primary topics will be "congestion pricing," a scheme to reduce delays by making airlines think twice about scheduling flights during the busiest times of the day.

Generally, the plan would implement higher fees for planes operating at the airports during the aviation rush hours, which, in New York, coincide roughly with morning and evening commutes.

Supporters of the idea say the extra cost of flying in prime time might lead airlines to shift some flights to less busy periods, and leave rush hour to the biggest jets with the most passengers.

Travelers might opt for off-peak hours too, if tickets for those coveted early evening flights suddenly got more expensive. But limits on the number of planes flying at hours popular for business travelers could hurt the city's economy.

Congestion faces strong opposition from airlines, who say it will raise costs, discourage airlines from serving smaller cities, and make it harder for passengers to fly when they want.

R. John Hansman, director of the International Center for Air Transportation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said congestion pricing could have benefits at JFK, but would be tough to implement.

The challenge, he said, "is that landing spots in New York are so valuable, it is hard to have a price high enough that would change the airlines' behavior."

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Many of JFK's international flights, he said, also can't simply be shifted to another part of the day because they need to leave at certain hours so they don't arrive at their destinations in the dead of night.

Some airline officials say the better solution is to make better use of New York's inefficient, convoluted airspace.

For decades, jetliners traveling over the dense eastern seaboard have been directed to use a small number of old flight paths, some laid out in the days when pilots still navigated by signal fires.

Those routes jam up quickly on most days, and delays can ripple throughout the country when one or more of the air highways is blocked by a thunderstorm.

Air traffic controllers monitoring those corridors also complain that they are stretched to the limit in command centers that are understaffed.

Gary Edwards, director of flight control at Delta Air Lines Inc., said those problems routinely keep JFK from operating at anywhere close to its capacity.

With all four of its runways in use, the airport is supposed to be able to handle as many as 100 aircraft movements per hour, according to its FAA rating. But on most days, it handles about 68 per hour. The situation is similar in Newark, which has a maximum capacity rating of 80 takeoffs or landings per hour, but usually can perform only 65.

Delta has tried to cut through some of the problems by regularly asking to fly less congested corridors, including ones that detour planes 60 or 70 miles out of their way just to get free of New York.

But more often than not, Edwards said, the planes are instructed to stick with traditional flight headings by overworked air traffic controllers who don't want aircraft moving through their sectors on unfamiliar routes.

"It's a difficult pill for us to swallow," he said. "The airspace definitely needs to be redesigned."

In August, only 59 percent of arrivals and 63 percent of departures at JFK were on time, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Newark was only a little better, with 62 percent of arrivals and 66 percent of departures on time. Laguardia saw only 58 percent of its flights land on schedule.

Those numbers chronically rank among the top five worst in the country. Delays at those airports regularly run to two or three hours, even on days when the closest bad weather is hundreds of miles away.

The FAA has already come up with a sweeping redesign for the airspace around New York and Philadelphia. Both the agency and the airlines say it could cut delays by as much as 20 percent. But the plan has been repeatedly delayed due, in part, to opposition from lawmakers whose communities that might hear more plane traffic.

Members of the flight delay task force say they have other ideas that might help.

Some airlines have asked that a rarely used section of the skies off the east coast, now reserved for the military, be opened up to commercial carriers.

The airlines have also asked the FAA to appoint a "czar" to oversee the independent control centers that coordinate traffic in the region — someone who would have the authority to address delay problems decisively.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer backed both of those ideas Thursday, and chided the FAA for not implementing them sooner.

"These are slam dunks for the FAA," Schumer said. "It's befuddling why they haven't done them already."

He also said the FAA should immediately follow through on its already-announced plan to convene a meeting of airlines to talk specifically about scheduling issues at JFK. The aim of the talks would be to cut down on instances when the carriers have collectively planned too many flights for the airport at the same time.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said all of those ideas, and more, will be considered in the coming weeks. President Bush has asked the task force to report back by December.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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