If there are 8 million stories in the Naked City, at least half of them are tales of horrific delays at John F. Kennedy International airport.
According to government figures, J.F.K. is currently the nation’s worst airport for timely operations. Only about 60 percent of its flights this year have had even a nodding acquaintance with their scheduled arrival and departure times. And a glance at Kennedy’s operations this summer as revealed in statistics from FlightStats.com reveals truly nightmarish scenarios: Some flights were delayed more than 10 hours. The average delay on many days exceeded two hours. And then there was August 25. Severe weather and packed schedules meant just 17.9 percent of flights operated on time. And 10 percent of the airport’s operations were canceled outright, more than five times the industry average.
The chaos at Kennedy isn’t a problem that affects only demanding New Yorkers. About a third of the nation’s air traffic runs through New York’s airspace, meaning a bad day at J.F.K. causes delays around the country. Two of the nation’s three largest carriers (American and Delta) operate hubs at J.F.K. So does JetBlue, the fast-growing low-fare airline. J.F.K. is America’s primary gateway to Europe; a major nexus for travelers headed to Asia, Africa, and Latin America; and the East Coast fulcrum of the high-profile, highly profitable “transcon” routes to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Alarmed by skyrocketing delays, a 40 percent run-up in scheduled flights during the past 18 months, and the airlines’ plans to pour hundreds more flights into Kennedy by next summer, government regulators have finally wakened from their bureaucratic slumber. Besides convening a two-day summit of airlines executives late last month, the Department of Transportation has made an exceedingly modest proposal: Airlines should bow to the laws of physics and not schedule more flights than Kennedy can handle.
Although it has the authority to impose schedule cuts, D.O.T. officials have instead suggested limiting flights to a total of about 80 arrivals and departures an hour during Kennedy’s peak periods — generally in the early morning and between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., when flights to Europe are most frequently scheduled. “We have got to make sure the options customers have are real,” D.O.T. secretary Mary Peters said in advance of the two-day meeting. “Publishing schedules that offer 61 departing flights between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. when the airport can handle only 44 departures is not fair to fliers.”
Airlines responded to Peters with disdain. The D.O.T. proposal “will shut the door on growth for our country’s leading international gateway,” said James C. May, the president of the Air Transport Association. With depressing predictability, all of the other entrenched interests — the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Kennedy; the lobbyist for the international airlines; the Aviation Development Council; the aircraft makers; New York trade associations; and even the phony passenger advocates whose membership groups have no actual passenger members — lined up behind the A.T.A.
What the airlines want — other than billions of dollars of new public spending lavished on their pet airport and infrastructure projects — is to be left alone to do virtually nothing at all about the chaos at Kennedy.
“What’s broken is broken, but half of the people who understand the problem simply aren’t willing to accept that it’s broken” is the assessment of Jack Foley, executive vice president, North America, of Irish carrier Aer Lingus. A plainspoken New Yorker, Foley is one of the few airline executives I’ve ever met who actually thinks about what passengers want and need. And no matter what the airlines claim publicly, Foley tells me that “there’s no sense of urgency and no sense of clarity from the airlines” about J.F.K.’s delays.
The airlines and other parties opposed to reducing schedules at J.F.K. all see culprits besides the physical reality of too many flights in too small a space. They blame the weather, the nation’s admittedly antiquated air-traffic-control system, and a cornucopia of other minor factors. And they raise the hoary restraint-of-trade argument. “If this limitation [had been] in place at J.F.K. last year, the airport would have turned away nearly 3.4 million passengers, or 10,000 per day,” complained the Port Authority in response to the D.O.T.’s suggestion.
But these arguments all ignore one of the primary reasons why Kennedy is in chaos: For years, the airlines have relentlessly reduced passenger capacity while dramatically increasing the number of flights, a process known as “downgauging.”
In 1978, for example, United Airlines flew three times a day between J.F.K. and Los Angeles. It used Boeing 747s that could accommodate a total of 1,356 passengers. Thirty years later, United clogs J.F.K. with seven daily flights on the route. But since it now uses Boeing 757s configured with only 110 seats, its daily capacity has dropped to 770 seats. In other words, United now has about half the daily passenger capacity despite having doubled the number of flights on the route.
Then there are the so-called regional jets, 37- and 50-seat planes that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Today, they represent 28 percent of the flights at J.F.K., but they carry just 13 percent of the airport’s passengers. And despite airline protests that these tiny, runway-clogging planes serve small communities whose populations cannot support larger aircraft, the truth is quite different. American Airlines, for instance, flies 37-seat jets to Washington four times a day from J.F.K. Delta uses 50-seat regional jets five times a day between Kennedy and Chicago.
The airlines claim they run much smaller planes because passengers demand more flight options. But what good are frequent flights that almost never run on time? More than anything, business travelers want reliability. Most of us would happily trade the illusion of frequency for flights that run without delays.
And the real kicker? Things are even worse than they seem from the schedules.
Consider American Airlines Flight 10, the popular red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Kennedy. These days, Flight 10 is scheduled to depart at 9:30 p.m. Pacific time and arrive at Kennedy at 5:45 a.m. the next morning. That’s a scheduled travel time of 5 hours and 15 minutes. Back in 1978, however, Flight 10 had a scheduled travel time of just 4 hours and 55 minutes.
What do business travelers get on Flight 10 now that American has “padded” the schedule by 20 minutes? According to FlightStats.com, only 74 percent of flights on the route arrive on time, and the average delay is 24 minutes. In real time, it actually takes 44 minutes longer to fly from Los Angeles to New York than it did 30 years ago.
But that’s another story of the Naked City.
The fine print
According to the latest Air Travel Consumer Report, 75.4 percent of flights at Kennedy Airport operated on time in September. It ranked 30th out of the nation’s 31 largest airports. (Bad weather in the Twin Cities during September meant Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport was just 73.6 percent on time.) Between 3 and 10 p.m. in September, at least one in three flights arrived late at J.F.K.