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N.Y. airspace seeks a decongestant

Feb. 8, 2013 - 10:19AM   |  
By NANCY TREJOS   |   Comments
New York City, the nation's biggest business-travel market, also has the most congested air traffic. Efforts are underway to ease the congestion at New York's three major airports: LaGuardia, JFK (above) and Newark Liberty.
New York City, the nation's biggest business-travel market, also has the most congested air traffic. Efforts are underway to ease the congestion at New York's three major airports: LaGuardia, JFK (above) and Newark Liberty. (JFK airport)

DaWane Wanek has to travel from Texas to New York City for work several times a year, but he’s figured out a way to do it that avoids flying into New York.

“On a perfect day, things are challenging, so when the slightest thing happens, say weather-related or, God forbid, the president comes to town, forget about it,” he says of flying.

He flies into Washington or Baltimore, and takes Amtrak’s high-speed Acela train to Manhattan. To go home, he takes the Acela to Boston and flies home from there.

“Granted, both D.C. and Boston have issues,” he says, “but nothing like a bad day that gets worse over the skies of the Tri-state area.”

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airports, knows how bad it can get. New York City, the nation’s biggest business-travel market, also has the most congested air traffic.

Efforts are underway to ease the congestion at New York’s three major airports — LaGuardia, JFK and Newark Liberty. About 3,700 to 4,500 flights fly to, from or through the New York area each day, and delays there ripple across the nation’s air transit system.

Expanding the airports isn’t an option because they’re so close together, so the Port Authority has come up with other ways to move traffic more quickly: adding so-called “high-speed taxiways” and using a metering program to move planes more efficiently on the ground.

The idea for the taxiways is simple: One plane can’t depart until the one that’s landed gets off the runway. Traditional taxiways are set at 90-degree angles that force planes to slow down while exiting runways. The high-speed taxiways are angled more gently so planes can exit more quickly but still safely.

“The sooner you get that landing off the runway, the sooner you can get a departure,” says Tom Bock, general manager of operational enhancements at the Port Authority.

High-speed taxiways can shave 8 seconds off a landing or departure, he says. That translates into three departures or landings an hour.

JFK has eight high-speed taxiways and will get another three. LaGuardia has seven high-speed taxiways. Newark has eight, and two more are being built. The Port Authority is considering adding more at LaGuardia and Newark.

To do that requires a significant financial investment. Adding the two high-speed taxiways and improving runways at Newark will cost about $32 million.

It can be a worthwhile investment. According to the U.S. Transportation Department, airlines took in about $18 billion in revenue flying to and from New York in 2011. Chicago came in second, with $8.5 billion.

The airports are extremely important to business travelers, says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition. “As a major business-center destination, New York City is full of customers and new business opportunities, and the airports enable the only viable access for many,” he says. “The airports represent the most important East Coast international gateway, and when things go wrong there, airports around the country are impacted.”

Ben Griffith, an attorney in Cleveland, Miss., knows that all too well.

He once flew from Memphis, Tenn., to LaGuardia Airport via Atlanta. His evening flight to Atlanta made it in time. But his flight to New York was canceled because of bad weather there. He switched to a flight the next morning. It left an hour late, and he was late for his meeting in New York.

“The crowded airspace in that area is unique and not getting better any time soon,” Griffith says.

The Port Authority also plans to expand a metering system used at JFK to LaGuardia and Newark to speed departures.

It used to be that airlines would line up at taxiways to take off. The lines would get long, and people could get stuck on the planes. The Transportation Department now forbids tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights and four hours on international flights.

“If you have 30 airplanes in the queue, why do you want that 31st plane out there, when they can’t take off for an hour?” Bock says.

Now, airlines request take-off times, and the metering program schedules the take-offs in 15-minute blocks. Planes don’t leave the gate until the time they’ve been assigned. If there are delays, planes stay at the gate, and passengers can wait in a more comfortable area.

“We only put planes out there that we know can go,” Bock says.

That eases traffic on the taxiways, makes the planes move more quickly and conserves fuel, he says.

Although Newark has no metering system yet, United Airlines, which runs the majority of flights there, has its own ramp tower that manages aircraft on the ground, says United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson.

Air traffic control personnel are in contact with the command center at the airline’s Chicago headquarters. Officials there are in contact with the Federal Aviation Administration to discuss any problems in the skies.

With the constant flow of information, United can time its flights better, Johnson says The airline industry supports the Port Authority’s efforts, says Katie Connell of Airlines for America, the industry’s trade group.

Analysts say the taxiways and metering systems are sound strategies.

Robin Sobotta, chair of the business department at the Prescott, Ariz., campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, says the FAA still favors 90-degree taxiways.

But, she says, high-speed taxiways have been built safely throughout the country.

“I’m an advocate of high-speed intersections when planned properly,” she says. “We never want to do it at the cost of incurring another safety issue.”

Ultimately, New York airports have to deal with too much demand, says Stephen Van Beek of LeighFisher, a management consulting firm specializing in transportation.

“There’s not much you can do to add runways to most metropolitan congested airports,” he says.

“Your only choice is to increase the efficiency.”

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Nancy Trejos reports for USA Today.

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