Image: LaGuardia Airport
Mike Segar  /  Reuters
Travelers wait in line at a curb-side check in counter at New York's LaGuardia Airport on Nov. 20. Americans are expected to travel in record numbers for the Thanksgiving holiday.
updated 11/20/2007 3:29:52 PM ET 2007-11-20T20:29:52

Nearly 1.7 million travelers are expected to pass through New York's three major airports over the next five days, and if things go poorly, the airlines may have more to worry about than snarling passengers.

U.S. transportation officials have been saying for months that air carriers may be scheduling more flights through the metropolitan region than the airspace can handle.

Almost three of every four flight delays in the country can now be traced back to a problem in the greater New York area. Delays were so bad over the summer, President Bush got involved in trying to solve the problem.

Federal officials are threatening to forcibly thin congestion by capping the number of hourly flights at John F. Kennedy International Airport, the city's premier gateway.

The airlines have fought the proposal, saying it could drive up fares and force them to reduce service to smaller cities.

But momentum has been building for some type of restriction on flights. A critical Federal Aviation Administration report on the problem is due in early December.

With the decision looming, the region's airports face a critical test.

Air carriers have scheduled a crush of 3,492 takeoffs and landings Wednesday at JFK and its sister airports, Newark Liberty and LaGuardia. Another 3,398 flights are scheduled for Sunday, the day many Americans return from their Thanksgiving holiday.

Things are expected to be at their worst after 3 p.m. Sunday at JFK, when 194 flight operations are planned in a two-hour window.

That's one takeoff or landing every 37 seconds.

The U.S. Department of Transportation suggested this fall that Kennedy could handle a maximum of 80 or 81 aircraft per hour. That's about 20 fewer than scheduled for each hour during that window.

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But officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airports, say they are up to the challenge.

The Bush Administration and the FAA announced a number of initiatives last week in an attempt to help with the rush.

Commercial flights will temporarily be able to use military airspace off the Atlantic coast that is usually restricted.

Jets leaving Newark, Kennedy and Philadelphia International Airport will be able to use some new takeoff patterns that have the potential to help aircraft leave the area more quickly. Some changes have been authorized that may also speed landings.

JetBlue CEO David Barger said those measures will help.

"You get one percent here, two percent there ... It doesn't sound like a big deal, but they are a big deal when you add them together," Barger said.

The airlines and the Port Authority are hoping that, in the end, federal transportation officials will favor similar capacity-enhancing measures as the solution to the region's problems, rather than flight caps.

"We believe we can meet the demand," said the agency's aviation director, William R. DeCota.

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

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