updated 1/14/2009 6:17:51 PM ET 2009-01-14T23:17:51

The government is asking airlines that operate at New York's LaGuardia Airport to voluntarily give up some of their slots so it can achieve a cap on hourly flights at the airport and reduce congestion.

The move comes after a court blocked the government from proceeding with its plan to confiscate slots from airlines at the three major New York-area airports and auction them off.

The Department of Transportation, which oversees the FAA, said in a statement Wednesday that airlines operating at LaGuardia will have until Feb. 2 to tell the department which flights they will voluntarily give up in order to reduce congestion.

It's part of a proposed government effort to voluntarily reduce scheduled operations from an average of 75 per hour to 71. The flight reductions must take place by May 31 and will be in effect until Oct. 24, the government said.

Newark Liberty International Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport both already have caps, set at about 83 flights per hour, according to the government. Those reductions also were voluntary, but were part of a structured schedule reduction, said Bill Mosley, a DOT spokesman.

If the airlines don't comply with the government's latest request regarding slots at LaGuardia to the extent the government is hoping, flights will be reduced by whatever amount the carriers voluntarily surrender, Mosley said.

The three top airlines at LaGuardia are Delta Air Lines Inc., AMR Corp.'s American Airlines and US Airways Group Inc.

The Air Transport Association, which represents U.S. airlines, said in a statement Wednesday that it “has long advocated that the most meaningful way to reduce delays is to fully implement operational and technological improvements — not to artificially constrain demand by measures such as slot reductions and auctions — and to accelerate development and deployment of technology and systems modernization.”

The group said such measures will reduce flight delays and unnecessary fuel burn/emissions, and open up access to New York-area airports.

DOT General Counsel D.J. Gribbin said last month that the move could reduce delays by as much as 41 percent and save $178 million in costs.

For the first 10 months of 2008, LaGuardia ranked last among the 32 major U.S. airports in on-time arrival performance, according to the Transportation Department. The Bush administration had sought to auction off some flight slots at New York City-area airports in an effort to reduce delays nationwide, but that plan was stayed by a judge after strong opposition from airlines and industry groups.

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The DOT said Wednesday's action “is a near-term step toward restoring reliable air service to LaGuardia.” It said that any future long-term plan should include market-based solutions.

The DOT said any slots voluntarily returned by the carriers by Feb. 2 will be credited toward any required reductions if slot auctions proceed in the future. Slots returned or withdrawn for nonuse after Feb. 2 will be retired to meet the new hourly cap, but carriers will not receive credit for those returns, the DOT said.

More on slot auctions | flight delays

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