It's the runways, stupid

Here’s a statement from the U.S. Air Transport Association (ATA) — the airlines’ lobby group — about variable landing fees for U.S. airports (e.g. higher at peak times, lower other times):

“Unfortunately, [the policy] does nothing to fix the primary cause of delays – our nation’s increasingly antiquated air traffic control system,” ATA CEO Jim May said. “Additional fees . . . will only increase the cost of flying for the consumer.”

Yes, the U.S. ATC system is antiquated, and yes, higher peak-hour fees at big airports may mean higher ticket prices, but how is ATC the problem? Flights don’t get delayed because a controller has to use a voice line to coordinate hand-offs or stare at a cold-war era radar screen; they get delayed because runways at big hubs can handle only a limited number of landings per hour. The proof is in the fact that there are almost never delays flying to small airports. (Ever had a ground hold waiting to fly to Massena, NY? Didn’t think so.)

Let’s make it really easy for the ATA:

  • Big airport (called “hub”) has one active landing runway.
  • Runway can handle 40 landings every hour.
  • Your members (airlines) schedule 50 flights per hour into the hub.
  • Planes land late.

Give the FAA as much new shiny technology as you want, but if there aren’t enough runways, it won’t help. Do you really want to be flying heavy jets a minute apart or less? Fancy navigation technology won’t get rid of wake turbulence.

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4 Responses to It's the runways, stupid

  1. Paul Tomblin says:

    While I agree with your point, I disagree with your “proof”.

    I’ve twice flown IFR out of airports near New York City, KCDW and KBLM, and both times I’ve had to hold on the ground for 20 minutes or more waiting for a clearance. The first time it was a perfect VFR day and I had a huge lineup waiting behind me at the hold short line (because when I’d called clearance delivery they’d told me the clearance would be available momentarily), and I should have just said I’d depart VFR and pick up the clearance over ETX or something.

  2. The idea that modernizing the FAA’s equipemtn will have any significnat effect on delays is, indeed, bogus. It’s the current ‘fad’ in Congress … they are working it exactly the way I used to manipulate my workload when I was a government employee. If there is aproblem, come up with a grandiose scheme that requires money you know you can not get … you’ll be able to retire before the funding ever gets finalized.

    Paul’s rebuttal is an interesting anecdote but, speaking of ‘proof’, what correlation is there between the 20 minute delays and the existing ATC system? Just becuase the weather wasn’t bad doesn’t mean that there were not airspace/runway limitations somewhere else along the planned route … and holding on the ground is much preferable to holding in the air. It seems to me an apples to oranges comparison.

    More runways are needed, the FAA collected money for many years ow in the ‘trust fund’, but the ‘trust’ in the name doesn’t have it’s common meaning and very few runways are getting built. The majority of delays entoute would not be significantly altered with some magic new system of routing, but even if I’m wrong on that, everyone who got to their destination faster still has to get x miles in trail of the guy in front … kind of like highways in Boston where 8 lanes merge into a two-lane tunnel … paving the roads won’t cure the log jam.

  3. david says:

    Paul and Dave:

    Thanks for your comments. Paul’s comment jogged my own memory, about waiting 15 minutes once for an IFR release from Republic. These are special cases, though, because although these airports are small, they are very close to busy ones — an IFR departure from KCDW interferes with the departures and/or arrivals at Newark and Teterboro a few miles away, and an IFR departure west or northwestbound from Republic interferes with departures and/or arrivals at LaGuardia a bit to the east (and maybe Kennedy as well). Paul’s delay from Monmouth, though, does seem more simply a matter of NY approach being overloaded.

  4. Mikel says:

    One mile of roadway will take you exactly one mile. One mile of runway can take you damn near anywhere. Funnily enough one mile of electronics could take you anywhere “virtually” however that doesn’t take you anywhere physically. I’m not so sure that better electronics in the cockpit will go far enough to increase capacity. Only more pavement will. aircraft flew long before electronics but very few did before pavement.

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