Finally, a realistic analysis of flight delays

"Ask the Pilot," a regular feature of Salon.com, today offers the best analysis of snarled airline traffic that I’ve seen to date.

"Airport congestion and flight delays are making travelers insane. A look at what will and won’t solve the problem" covers familiar ground (viz., airline scheduling practices, the shift of much traffic to small regional jets, and the need to update the air traffic control system). But it also addresses the issue that never seems to come up in op-eds and other surveys of the situation: airports–specifically, the number of available runways and associated taxiways and ramps.

(For a typical echo-chamber summary of the situation, see "Fear and Loathing at the Airport" at MSNBC.com, which sounds the familiar alarm and rounds up the usual suspects. "Nobody is in charge. The various players in the system, including big airlines, small aircraft owners, labor unions, politicians, airplane manufacturers, and executives with their corporate jets, are locked in permanent warfare as they fight to protect their own interests. And the FAA, a weak agency that needs congressional approval for how it raises and spends money, seems incapable of breaking the gridlock.")

"Ask the Pilot" writer Patrick Smith, who is an airline pilot, summed up the problem with an all-too-familiar example:

Two weeks ago I was working a flight from Europe to JFK. We landed shortly after 5 p.m. — several minutes ahead of schedule, ironically — only to spend the next two hours — two hours — taxiing from the end of the runway to our parking position. Our assigned gate was open and available the entire time, but the airport had become a spaghetti snarl of planes. Taxiways were blocked; aprons, clogged. It was literally gridlock — with scores of 50- and 70-seat RJs jockeying for space with A340s and 747s.

But that delay had nothing to do with thunderstorms, creaky radar equipment, buzzing bizjets, private pilots and their putt-putt planes, or overworked controllers and understaffed FAA facilities.

"So why not build more runways?" asks Smith.

For lots of reasons, not the least of which are the long and contentious battles that runway construction projects inevitably trigger among airport authorities, politicians and anti-expansion neighborhood groups. At my hometown airport, Boston’s Logan International, it took 30 years to get a badly needed, 5,000-foot stub of a runway completed.

No less daunting are the funding and technical issues. Taxiways have to be constructed; complex lighting systems installed; navigational aids put in place; flight patterns developed and test-flown. At Denver, the opening of a sixth runway carried a tab of $165 million. Denver, at least, had the room. A runway suitable for heavier jets needs to be two miles long. At LaGuardia? At Kennedy? At Newark or Washington National? Where would it fit?

What Smith doesn’t mention explicitly is that the FAA neither owns nor operates airports. It helps pay for them through the Aviation Trust Fund, but it can provide money only after the local governments and other entities that actually plan, build, and operate such facilities get the projects rolling. There’s no Bismarck to unify the airport fiefdoms that muck up the national air transportation network on the ground, where all flights begin and end.

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