December 5, 2023

N.Y. Airports Account for Half of All Delays

Each day, thousands of passengers are stuck on planes at the airports — Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark Liberty International — sitting in line behind a dozen other planes waiting to take off or circling overhead until they get clearance to land.

And the delays persist, despite changes in procedures and schedules by the airlines, airports and Federal Aviation Administration over the years. (In the latest move, the F.A.A. last fall created new flight paths out of Kennedy to speed up departures.) Even a significant drop in the number of flights since the economy slowed has not helped much. Flight delays last year in New York were as bad as they were five years ago.

In the first half of 2011, the region’s airspace — defined as the big three airports, plus Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, which caters to corporate jets, and Philadelphia International Airport — handled 12 percent of all domestic flights but accounted for nearly half of all delays in the nation. In the same period in 2005, they represented just a third of all delays, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.

These delays ripple across the country. A third of all delays around the nation each year are caused, in some way, by the New York airports, according to the F.A.A. Or, as Paul McGraw, an operations expert with Airlines for America, the industry trade group, put it, “When New York sneezes, the rest of the national airspace catches a cold.”

Delays come from a variety of causes, including mechanical problems with planes, late crews, missing passengers or misplaced bags. In many cases — though the exact share is impossible to estimate precisely — weather plays a big role. Snow or fog can ground planes for hours in the winter, while summer storms frequently send airline schedules into disarray.

According to the Department of Transportation, a flight is considered on time if it leaves or arrives at its gate within 15 minutes of its schedule. But even that statistic can be misleading. To minimize late arrivals, airlines have long padded their schedules, counting flight times as longer than necessary. One study, by the Senate Joint Economic Committee, concluded that huge delays in 2007, which affected 320 million passengers, cost the economy $41 billion that year. That figure includes losses to the airlines, wasted time for passengers and the overall cost to the economy.

The New York area airports, of course, are not the only ones that suffer from chronic delays, but they are consistently ranked among the worst in the nation. According to the report by the G.A.O., 80 percent of all delayed flights late in 2009 happened at just seven airports — La Guardia, Kennedy, Newark, San Francisco, Atlanta, Philadelphia and O’Hare in Chicago.

At Kennedy, a quarter of all flights did not leave on time in the first 10 months of 2011, the latest period of data available, with delays averaging 67 minutes. That is up from 58 minutes in 2006. Similarly, in Newark, more than a quarter of all flights did not leave on time, and just 66 percent arrived on time, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That was the worst performance of all the major airports in the nation last year.

The region’s challenges are unique and daunting for air traffic managers. There are four airports within a 30-mile radius, heavy traffic and little room to build a new runway anywhere convenient. Complicating matters further, such proximity means that what happens at one airport has an effect on the operations of the other airports.

A change of winds at Kennedy, for instance, can affect what runway is used at La Guardia so that planes heading into either airport do not cross paths. In turn, that can affect how traffic is directed into Newark Liberty and Teterboro.

“You have to think about it as one giant airport,” said Robert Maruster, the chief operating officer of JetBlue Airways, one of the top operators at Kennedy Airport.

To address this chronic problem, which goes back decades, the F.A.A. has set up a system of quotas, called slots, at the New York airports that effectively limit airlines from scheduling more flights than airports can handle — a cause of widespread delays in previous years. As part of a decade-long redesign of the region’s airspace, the F.A.A. is also seeking to smooth traffic flows among the airports so that flights landing at Kennedy do not restrict departures at La Guardia. Last October, it introduced a new takeoff route out of Kennedy — which it calls the “J.F.K. wrap” — that takes planes headed west on a northern loop over Nassau and Westchester Counties before sending them onto the traditional highways in the sky that guide planes to cities like San Francisco or Denver.

The wrap, which avoids more congested airspace south of the airport, is meant to get flights out of the Kennedy airspace faster and reduce delays in the process. Airlines, however, are unenthusiastic because the route forces them on a slightly longer flight, which raises their fuel bill.

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