Congested airports nationwide can charge landing fees based on the time flights land and traffic volume instead of on the plane's weight, according to a federal policy introduced Monday.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said the policy will make it easier for airports to reduce delays by encouraging airlines to spread their flights more evenly throughout the day.
Some analysts say while the new fees will encourage competition among airports, consumers ultimately will foot the bill.
Airline arrival rates through November were the second worst since comparable data began being collected in 1995, the Transportation Department said earlier this month. The new policy will encourage congested airports in New York and elsewhere to include the cost of projects designed to expand capacity in the new landing fees now instead of after construction has been completed, Peters said.
The policy also will allow operators of multiple airports, such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, to distribute landing-fee revenue among facilities, she said.
But the Port Authority, which runs John F. Kennedy International Airport, LaGuardia and New Jersey's Newark Liberty, said the new policy is a minor fix for a major problem. Through November, those three airports had the lowest on-time arrival rates, and aviation officials say delays there cascade throughout the system, causing 75 percent of the nation's flight delays.
"It's good the (Federal Aviation Administration) is focusing on the delays issue, but these small steps don't address the fundamental problem when dramatic action is needed," according to a Port Authority statement. "The right solution is expanding capacity through 21st century technologies, working with the airlines on more rational schedules and better customer service."
The Air Transport Association, which represents the nation's largest airlines, cast the policy as "congestion pricing disguised as airport fee," and echoed the need for a more comprehensive fix.
"Unfortunately, (the policy) does nothing to fix the primary cause of delays — our nation's increasingly antiquated air traffic control system," ATA President and CEO Jim May said in a statement. "Additional fees ... will only increase the cost of flying for the consumer."
But, the association representing airport owners and operators welcomed the change, lauding Peters for recognizing that "airport proprietors are in the best position to manage the use of the facilities they planned, financed, built and currently operate," Airports Council International-North America President Greg Principato said in a release.
Consumers flying at peak travel times should not be singled out just because the airports are charging airlines more for their flights, but all travelers likely will see ticket prices rise as carriers distribute the additional cost, said Terry Trippler, a travel expert who's had air fares on his radar for decades. Still, he welcomed the new policy.
"The best part about this is that it opens up competition among airports," Trippler said, adding that airports in Memphis or Philadelphia who see their counterparts in Atlanta or New York raising landing fees may opt not to follow suit as a way to attract more business. "That's what we want and that's what we need."
The proposed landing fee policy will be open to public comment for 45 days before finalized.
To avoid another summer of record delays, Peters last month said flight caps will begin in March at New York City area airports.
JFK will be allowed 82 or 83 flights per hour at the peak times, down from about 100 that had been scheduled last summer. Similar caps, which already exist at LaGuardia, also will go into effect at Newark, but the exact number has yet to be determined.
In its criticism of flight caps, The Port Authority has said they may raise ticket prices or force some travelers to fly at inconvenient times.
Meanwhile, the airlines and the FAA are pressing for a new, $15 billion satellite-based air traffic control system to improve operations. In late August, the agency awarded ITT Corp. a contract worth up to $1.8 billion to build the first portion of the system, that will overall take nearly 20 years to complete.