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Government steps in to ease flight delays

Fewer flights will go in and out of New York City airports at the busiest times to try to ease chronic nationwide air travel delays, the government said Wednesday. To help holiday travelers, military airspace will be opened to commercial traffic on the East and West Coasts, the government said.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fewer flights will be allowed in and out of New York's airports at the busiest times as part of a Bush administration plan to help reduce delays at airports across the United States.

To speed holiday travel, the government plans to open military airspace to commercial traffic on the East and West Coasts.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced the changes Wednesday at an air traffic command center in Virginia after months of closed-door wrangling with the airlines over how to curb air traffic around New York City's three major airports: John F. Kennedy International Airport, LaGuardia Airport, and Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey.

Peters said she had no choice but to cap the number of planes at the most hectic hours.

"I had hoped to be able to avoid caps but the truth is, for the short term, for the next few years, this is the solution that will provide some relief for travelers," Peters said.

Officials said they hope to ease the impact of the changes by shifting more flights to off-peak, midday hours, and expected the overall number of daily flights in the area to rise.

Under new rules that take effect in March, JFK will only be allowed 82 or 83 flights per hour at the peak times, down significantly from the 90 to 100 that had been scheduled this past summer. Similar caps will go into effect at Newark, but the exact number has yet to be determined. LaGuardia already has limits on flights.

Peters also announced new take-off patterns at Newark and Philadelphia International Airport to provide more space for departing aircraft.

The New York airport caps were immediately criticized by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the region's three major airports. Port Authority Executive Director Anthony Shorris said the FAA was "simply wrong" about the capacity at JFK, which he said is capable of handling as many as 100 flights per hour.

Limiting the number of flights at popular travel times may lead to higher ticket prices, or force some people to travel at inconvenient times, Shorris said.

The government's move means airlines will have to slash the number of flights they schedule at JFK during peak hours of the day _ in the early morning and at the end of the day. Those most likely to be affected by the changes are business travelers, who prefer to fly at those times.

The region's three major airports have the worst on-time arrival record of all major U.S. airports through October. Aviation officials say delays in New York have a cascade effect throughout the system causing three-quarters of all flight delays in the nation.

Overall, the industry's on-time performance through October was the second-worst on record since collection of comparable data began in 1995. Nearly one in four flights arrived late in the first 10 months of the year.

"The American public, the passengers, the customers and consumers want and deserve a much more dependable, much more reliable system, and this is what this plan will do," Peters said.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which met with airline officials throughout the fall seeking ways to solve delays at New York's three major airports, plans to create a "czar" for air travel in the region.

Sen. Charles Schumer, an FAA critic, called the plan "half-baked. They're doing some of the things we need but not all of them." The New York Democrat said without hiring more air traffic controllers and speeding up its modernization plan, the FAA may face many of the same problems next year.

Peters also confirmed the government would open military airspace to commercial flights to accommodate the holiday season crush. A similar temporary measure was done during Thanksgiving week on the East Coast. A section of West Coast airspace will be added this time to try to smooth travel in and out of southern California, Peters said.

Delta's senior vice president of network and planning, Bob Cortelyou, said the caps in New York will "be great for our customers" because they will almost certainly ease delays at JFK, and thus lead to fewer disgruntled passengers, and fewer missed connections.

Delta said it is trimming its peak-hours schedule by 20 percent under the federal plan. Its overall number of flights will not change: Aircraft will simply fly later in the evening, or during the late-morning to early afternoon lull.

Federal officials described the New York airport caps as a short-term approach lasting two years, at which point officials said they hope new technology and modernized systems will allow for greater capacity in the region.

When improvements result in excess capacity at JFK and Newark, additional flight slots would be auctioned to the highest bidder, officials said. Aviation officials did not provide a schedule for when they thought such an auction would be held.