updated 4/11/2008 7:03:56 PM ET 2008-04-11T23:03:56

New government restrictions on the number of flights at New York's congested airports will probably force Virgin America to delay plans to begin serving Newark Liberty International, the airline's CEO said.

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U.S. transportation officials began implementing rules this spring that will put an hourly cap on takeoffs and landings at Newark and its sister airport, John F. Kennedy International. Caps were already in place at LaGuardia.

The limits are intended to prevent the airlines from scheduling more flights than an airport's runways can handle, which was a common occurrence last year.

The change may mean less crowded taxiways, but some newer airlines are saying that the rationing system unfairly favors senior airlines.

Virgin America CEO David Cush complained that legacy carrier Continental Airlines was awarded more than 70 percent of the available slots at Newark, leaving little room for competitors.

"If everything stays the way it is, we won't be able to expand at Kennedy, we won't be able to launch service to Newark," he said. "It would lock out not only Virgin America, but every other carrier down the line."

Virgin, a spinoff of Virgin Atlantic, requested slots for six roundtrip flights per day from the West Coast. It was offered three, and at horrible hours that would require Virgin flights from San Francisco and Los Angeles to depart at the tough-to-market times of 10:30 p.m., 2 a.m. and 3 a.m.

Similar complaints have been lodged by Porter Airlines Inc., of Toronto. Porter began seven turboprop flights per day between Toronto and Newark on March 31. Under the FAA's rationing plan, the airline said it would lose some slots and have others scheduled so late they would violate a landing curfew at Toronto City Centre Airport, and thus be worthless.

The airline said in a letter to the FAA that the proposed changes will undermine the company at a critical stage in its development.

U.S. Department of Transportation General Counsel D.J. Gribbin said the administration sympathizes with Virgin and other airlines hurt by the new rules.

"On one side, we totally agree with where Virgin is coming from," he said. "Here is a company, it has a lot of promise and it wants access to an area where it is essentially locked out."

Gribbin said that, in general, the Department is opposed to flight caps and believes them to be bad for competition.

But, he said, last summer's horrific flight delays left the government no choice but to temporarily restrict the number of planes allowed to fly at Newark, Kennedy and LaGuardia Airport. Last year, problems at those airports were responsible for nearly three quarters of the nation's flight delays. Gribbin said a repeat would be unacceptable.

He noted that the caps, which are set to limit flights at Newark to no more than 81 per hour, expire after the summer of 2009. Federal officials have been working on long-term solutions aimed at expanding airport capacity.

The restrictions at Newark are scheduled to take effect on June 1.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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