Small Jets Worsen Airport Delays, and the Faa Cannot/will Not Adapt

Lynne Kiesling

The other day I read this Wall Street Journal article about the effect of small jets on air traffic delays ($$), and the more I thought about it, the more annoyed I got. Here’s the punchline:

At La Guardia, half of all flights now involve smaller planes: regional jets and turboprops. It’s the same at Chicago’s O’Hare, which is spending billions to expand runways. At New Jersey’s Newark Liberty and New York’s John F. Kennedy, 40% of traffic involves smaller planes, according to Eclat Consulting in Reston, Va. Aircraft numbers tell the tale: U.S. airlines grounded a net 385 large planes from 2000 through 2006 — but they added 1,029 regional jets — says data firm Airline Monitor.

As air-travel woes have spread, some aviation officials and regulators, including the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, have begun saying delays could be eased if airlines would consolidate some of their numerous flights on larger planes.

Just two problems with that. One is that airlines like having more flights with smaller jets. The other is that passengers like it, too.

Airlines like smaller planes because they are a cost-minimizing way to serve a wider range of destinations with more frequency; they also help the airlines achieve higher load factors. Passengers like smaller planes (well, maybe not the planes exactly, they are not comfortable) because they mean more frequent service. However, when you have higher volumes of traffic and unanticipated things happen, delays can domino and propagate. In the existing system, that’s the tradeoff.

But, and here’s the point where I get annoyed, there are so many potentially valuable and innovative ways that the FAA can manage airspace better than they currently do, but what do they want to do? They want to force airlines to use larger planes:

Trying to tackle airport crowding, the FAA last year proposed a complicated plan to force airlines to increase the average size of the planes they land at La Guardia. FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, questioning the use of many smaller planes and their more-numerous flights, says that “from the standpoint of passengers and from the standpoint of getting the best use out of high-priced real estate, this is not the way we should be going.” But the FAA plan encountered fierce opposition and is in limbo. “A solution eludes us,” Ms. Blakey says.

There is no excuse for the FAA’s retrograde, top-down mentality, other than just plain inertia and failure of imagination. Just think of the number of ways that we can implement better airspace management. We can replace regional radar control with a GPS network, which has been proposed and delayed because of its expense. But when Ms. Blakey of the FAA says later in the article that eventually the airlines will have to increase plane sizes because of the higher congestion costs they are bearing, why can’t she and her FAA colleagues apply that same logic to funding the GPS system through airline fees? Because the airlines use their political power to stop it, thereby exposing themselves to this congestion cost and the perpetuation of inefficient, obsolete, top-down airspace control instead of technology-enabled decentralized airspace coordination.

And then there’s the way airlines pay for landing slots; they pay by weight, which means that smaller planes pay less even though they actually use more runway because of the longer timing requirements in the small plane slots. Again I ask, given digital technology and our ability to implement sophisticated, decentralized systems, why are we not auctioning off takeoff-landing slot pairs at these congested airports??? Such an auction would induce the airlines to bid based on value, which would ameliorate both the weight differential problem and the peak-hour landing time challenge (i.e., lots of planes want to land around rush hour when those slots aren’t priced any differently than other times). The WSJ article does discuss peak pricing of landing slots, but in a cursory manner.

The technology is available and it’s gotten increasingly cheaper over the past two decades. For how long are we air travelers going to tolerate this failure of imagination and perpetuation of an inefficient status quo? When will airlines realize that implementing airspace technology systems and landing slot auctions provides a decentralized coordination mechanism that will alleviate some of the need for top-down FAA control that they complain about?

Wired’s Autopia blog also noted this article, and made the pithy observation that

America’s airport infrastructure needs radical improvement. Yet inevitably politicians talk about adding runways or upgrading air-traffic control systems. We need whole new ways of thinking about air travel–ways that take into consideration (heaven forbid!) how people actually travel.