Airport Delays Redux

The Bush Administration has just announced several measures to make air travel more reliable this holiday season. Whether opening some en route airspace reserved for military operations will actually reduce delays, especially in the gridlocked New York area, is an open question. As I argued in an earlier post, the knot tying up airline travel isn’t bad weather, non-airline flights, or the limitations of the ATC system (although all of these matters contribute to the problem). The core issues are runways and airline scheduling (especially the increased use of small regional jets), which have over-subscribed the available concrete.

More evidence in support of that position comes from a Nov. 11 story in USA Today. It pointed out that on-time performance has improved at several major airports recently:

From January through August, the largest 31 airports outside the New York region had 8% fewer total delays than during the same period in 2006, according to Federal Aviation Administration data. Even Chicago’s O’Hare and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson — the world’s two busiest airports and big generators of delays that ripple through the U.S. aviation system — improved…

It’s as if there now are two different aviation systems in the USA: In New York, there are too many scheduled flights and hemmed-in airports that can’t expand. But at other major airports, new runways, incremental improvements in air-traffic procedures and airlines’ moves to improve efficiency have begun to make a measurable difference for travelers.

Note the mentions of "room to expand" and "new runways." The airports with improved on-time records cited in the USA Today story (viz., Atlanta and Boston) have recently opened new runways. Chicago O’Hare has reduced the number of available slots and will open a new runway next year.

The USA Today story also takes time to explore other issues that contribute to delays, among them cumbersome arrangement of airspace and ATC procedures. Kudos to USA Today for not just echoing the complaints endlessly repeated by the Air Transport Association, which places much blame on general aviation (i.e., all flying except that conducted by the airlines and the military).

[Update: See About that plan to "speed up" Thanksgiving air travel, by James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. The New York Times offers more on the situation at JFK here.]

(For an interesting perspective on a related matter, see the latest installment of Ask the Pilot at Salon.com. The pilot/writer takes on an annoying TV ad for the iPhone.)

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