Holiday a critical test for airports - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Holiday a critical test for airports

NEW YORK (AP) - Nearly 1.7 million travelers are expected to pass through New York's three major airports over the next five days, and if things go poorly, the airlines may have more to worry about than snarling passengers.

U.S. transportation officials have been saying for months that air carriers may be scheduling more flights through the metropolitan region than the airspace can handle.

Almost three of every four flight delays in the country can now be traced back to a problem at greater New York's major airports, John F. Kennedy, Newark Liberty and LaGuardia. At nearby Philadelphia International Airport, poor airport design aggravates the coast-to-coast delays.

JFK, Newark and Philadelphia, along with Chicago's O'Hare International, had the worst on-time performance among the nation's airports through September. 

Nationwide, nearly a quarter of all flights on the 20 largest airlines arrived late, the industry's worst performance since it started keeping track in 1995. The delays were so bad, President Bush has gotten involved in trying to solve the problem.

Federal officials are threatening to forcibly thin congestion by capping the number of hourly flights at JFK. The airlines have fought the proposal, saying it could drive up fares and force them to reduce service to smaller cities.

But momentum has been building for some type of restriction on flights. A critical Federal Aviation Administration report on the problem is due in early December.

With the decision looming, the region's airports face a critical test this week. The three New York airports and Philadelphia all had delays of about an hour on Tuesday afternoon, according to the FAA.

Air carriers have scheduled a crush of 3,492 takeoffs and landings Wednesday at JFK, Newark and LaGuardia. Another 3,398 flights are scheduled for Sunday, the day many Americans return from their Thanksgiving holiday.

Things are expected to be at their worst after 3 p.m. Sunday at JFK, when 194 flight operations are planned in a two-hour window. That's one takeoff or landing every 37 seconds.

The U.S. Department of Transportation suggested this fall that Kennedy could handle a maximum of 80 or 81 aircraft per hour. That's about 20 fewer than scheduled for each hour during that window.

But officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airports, say they are up to the challenge.

The Bush administration and the FAA announced a number of initiatives last week in an attempt to help with the rush.

Commercial flights will temporarily be able to use military airspace off the Atlantic coast that is usually restricted.

Jets leaving Newark, Kennedy and Philadelphia will be able to use some new takeoff patterns that have the potential to help aircraft leave the area more quickly. Some changes have been authorized that may also speed landings.

JetBlue CEO David Barger said those measures will help.

"You get 1 percent here, 2 percent there ... It doesn't sound like a big deal, but they are a big deal when you add them together," Barger said.

The Philadelphia airport's problems are so extensive, significant improvements could take decades.

Poor runway arrangement limits the number of planes that can take off from Philadelphia at once, especially during bad weather, said Don Chapman, local president of the National Air Traffic Controllers union. Although a small runway was added in 1999, most of the layout dates back to the 1970s or earlier.

"If you wanted to show an airport that shows the opposite of what efficient is, Philly would be the poster child," Chapman said.

The FAA is considering three options for a major airport redesign aimed at realigning runways to allow more planes to take off at once. Construction would take 10 to 15 years and would not start until 2010 at the earliest, at an estimated cost of between $5 billion to $6 billion.

In the shorter term, airport officials are working on extending one runway to accommodate bigger planes. That project, slated for completion by the end of next year, is expected to help ease delays somewhat. 

Meanwhile, other proposed solutions that could be implemented more quickly have created an uproar.

Neighbors in the Philadelphia suburbs, and other areas along the East Coast, are angry over an airspace redesign meant to give planes more room. They say the change, which could go into effect next month, will force more flights over their homes and reduce property values.

Two congressmen, one from Pennsylvania and another from New Jersey, on Tuesday called for emergency litigation to stop the plan. They said it was being rushed and could pose safety concerns.

The FAA also is moving toward alleviating congestion with new navigational technology that would get more planes in the sky at once by allowing them to fly closer together.

Chapman said that would only make the problems worse.

"The cause of delays is not in the air," he said. "The cause of delays is on the ground."

But FAA officials call the changes a must for improving the region's clogged system.

"What you have to do is look to use technology and airspace design," FAA spokesman Jim Peters said. "How we improve things in New York and Philadelphia ultimately improves things in the rest of the country."

Patrick Walters reported on this story from Philadelphia.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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