The managers of New York City's three crowded airports vowed Monday to block a Bush administration experiment to reduce flight delays around the country by auctioning off takeoff and landing slots. A federal official said the airports had no such power and hinted they may lose funding if they don't back down.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey issued a legal notice stating it will not accept any flights at its three major airports — John F. Kennedy, Newark Liberty International, and LaGuardia — that are the result of a government auction of takeoff and landing slots.
The Bush administration has championed a limited auction of takeoff and landing slots at those airports to reduce flight delays there, which have a cascade effect, causing spillover delays nationwide.
U.S. airports saw near-record delays last year, and the government says two out of three flights delayed 15 minutes or more were due to a backup in New York's jammed airspace.
As public frustration with air travel increased, the White House demanded action, and Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced the auction slot plan. The Port Authority, a bistate agency, vehemently opposes it.
The Port Authority claims that, as the airport manager, it has the right to disallow departures or arrivals that are issued by auction or similar process. Such a claim could ultimately end in a legal fight between the U.S. government and the quasi-public agency that operates the New York City area's airports.
The Department of Transportation's top lawyer, D.J. Gribbin, said the move "boldly violates" the Port Authority's funding agreements with the Federal Aviation Administration — meaning a continued standoff could result in the loss of money to rebellious airports.
"I'm not surprised by their opposition to auctions. What is somewhat surprising is they think they have the legal authority" to block certain flights, Gribbin said.
The lawyer said he would try to persuade the Port Authority to back down, but if they don't, the law is on the government's side.
"It's pretty clear the airports don't have the authority to just unilaterally decide they don't want certain carriers to serve their airports," Gribbin said.
Port Authority aviation director Bill DeCota said that if the administration proceeds with its plan, "I can guarantee there's going to be a great deal of legal action against them."
And any plane arriving via an auctioned slot would be barred from using gates or ground facilities at their airports, he added.
"We're not going to allow it to come to a terminal," said DeCota.
As the Bush administration enters its final months in power, the Port Authority is concerned that Washington may try to start the auction process in the next 30 days, before Congress returns from its August recess and considers legislation that would specifically bar the auction.
Industry opponents of the auction scheme contend it will not reduce delays but will jack up prices of airline tickets, and lawmakers in Congress are already pushing legislation that would short-circuit the Bush administration's auction plan.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who is pushing that bill, lauded the Port Authority's announcement.
The Department of Transportation, Schumer said, "appears hell-bent on jamming this unworkable plan down the throats of the Port Authority and New York City air travelers, but we are going to fight this every step of the way."
Under the plan, the government will require carriers at the three airports to auction off some of their existing slots over the next five years and possibly retire others, in combination with limits on the number of flights at peak hours at those airports.
Government officials say such an auction is the best way to use market forces to cut inefficiencies in the system and make air travel more reliable. Opponents contend it will make the system more expensive and reduce service to a number of medium and small city airports.
Port Authority officials said Monday that they and a majority of other airport operators around the country believe the auction plan would have a severe negative impact on air travelers, and contend the administration cannot enforce such a plan without authorization from Congress.