The Federal Aviation Administration told airlines on Thursday it is moving forward with plans to auction some of the carriers' takeoff and landing slots at three New York City-area airports.
The FAA said that in 3 1/2 weeks it will begin the process that airlines argue could lead to cancellations and be devastating to an industry already under pressure from weakening demand for seats.
A list of all available slots at John F. Kennedy International Airport, LaGuardia Airport and Newark (N.J.) Liberty International Airport on which auction participants may bid will be posted online on Dec. 29, according to the FAA Web site. The agency plans to conduct the three auctions over the Internet on Jan. 12. A mock auction will be held Jan. 8.
The Government Accountability Office said in a Sept. 30 legal opinion that U.S. aviation officials have no legal authority to auction off takeoff and landing slots at airports, a scheme the government devised to try to curb crippling traffic jams at major airports. Days later, the Justice Department asserted the FAA does have the authority.
And the FAA is moving forward, holding a meeting in Washington on Thursday to explain the process to representatives of the airlines. Lee Moak, head of Delta Air Lines Inc.'s pilots union, attended the meeting, saying afterward he was concerned court intervention the carriers have been seeking would not come in time to block the FAA's plans.
"They haven't thought through the practical effect at all," Moak said of the FAA. "Not to mention the airlines are losing money, they're not profitable and this is the last thing anybody needs."
Atlanta-based Delta, the world's biggest carrier, and some other airlines have already loaded their schedules for flights into and out of those three airports through the first half of next year.
"The outcome of what the FAA is doing is they're going to confiscate slots, which are flights from tickets we have already sold into the spring," Moak said. "So, their actions could result in flight cancellations."
A Department of Transportation spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Thursday.
Transportation Secretary Mary Peters proposed the auction plan after widespread complaints last year about rampant flight delays across the country. The government says two out of three flights delayed 15 minutes or more were due to cascading backups beginning at one of the New York metropolitan area's three airports: Newark, JFK and LaGuardia.
Trying to fix the problem, the government imposed new limits on the airports and announced plans to auction off some takeoff and landing slots to control the crushing demand for time and space. By auctioning slots, the government reasons, market forces will help restrain such demand and make the system operate more efficiently.
Airlines and airports contend the auction proposal will add new costs and make a mess of day-to-day airport operations.
Moak said that based on a formula outlined by the government for determining whose slots will be auctioned off, it appears that only U.S. carriers would be affected, which he asserted is unfair since foreign carriers would be allowed to bid on those slots.
Houston-based Continental Airlines Inc. said the auctions wouldn't solve the problem of congestion at New York-area airports — the carrier has a major hub at Newark.
Continental spokeswoman Julie King said Thursday that instead of allocating money and personnel to improve the air traffic control system, "the administration proposes to raise more money by taking away airline slots and selling them to the highest bidder. Obviously, that plan won't reduce delays. It will simply mean that delays will continue but passengers will pay higher fares and smaller cities will lose access to New York."
But the FAA says on its Web site that the slot auctions are designed to encourage more efficient airline behavior, help alleviate congestion, and allow access to a small number of new entrants. It said the agency plans to use the proceeds from the auctions to mitigate congestion and delay in the New York City area.
David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a trade group for carriers, called the auction plan an "ideological experiment which has been disguised as a means of reducing congestion and increasing competition." He said "this ill-conceived scheme will do neither."