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August 04, 2009

Airport Delays and Capacity : Runways vs NextGen at JFK

I know that this August is a terrible time for delays and frustration, particularly in the New York City airports - EWR, LGA, JFK. I would like to summon the voice of Zero Mostel (or maybe Ed Koch) to intone, "So, you think this year is bad? Feh! Wait till you see next year!"

Kennedy Airport - I remember back when it was Idlewild - has four runways. Next spring, they're going to close the longest runway (the bayside runway, 13R-31L) for maintenance. That's March, April, May, June, July of 2010. August is going to look great at JFK next year after March through July.

One-third of all JFK operations happen on runway 13L-31R. JetBlue, who's business is based on their hub operation at Kennedy, is quite concerned.

Port Authority Director Chris Ward described the rehab as "open heart surgery" on an airport. Port Authority officals said the Federal Aviation Administration would "reschedule flights" so the other three runways could "absorb" the extra traffic. (That's an illusion if not an outright lie. They're just blame-framing. Let's be clear: the Port Authority is closing the runway. They're preparing to blame the FAA for the delays.)

As in all public works, the trade-off is a season of inconvenience for a decade of improved conditions. Next spring at Kennedy: FUBAR.

To me, this is an opportunity for evaluation. There are two schools of thought on what causes delays in general, and in NY's Big Three in particular. Perhaps this opportunity will serve to illuminate our minds.

The Robert Poole / Reason Foundation / military - industrial - complex says that delays are caused by an outdated, WW2-era air traffic control system. The Next-Gen vendors (who, remarkably, sell a solution) have repeatedly told Congre$$ that NextGen's advanced capabilities are essential to avoiding delays.

All the air traffic people I know say that delays are caused by airline schedules that exceed runway capacity.

This runway closure provides a comparative test-bed, a way to find out which theory is more valid. In Karl Popper's words, one or more of these theories is falsifiable. Our body of knowledge will be advanced by identifying which position is flawed. The test of a theory, you'll remember, is (1) is it falsifiable?, (2) does it explain what we observe?, and (3) does it help predict the future?

If Robert Poole and the NextGen Salesmen are right, they should be able to implement satellite-based procedures that avoid delays during the construction closure. No big deal.

If the runways-as-constraint contingent is right, the fact that runways are the limiting factor will be amply demonstrated when they close JFK's longest runway for months. Major delays.

I have a follow-up question: We know about this mishmash seven months before the event. Nobody will be surprised by it. If there are delays, caused by the airlines scheduling too many airplanes for a time when the airport's capacity is limited, will we call it an ATC Delay, or will we call it an Airline Scheduling Delay, or will we call it a Port Authority Delay? I'm just asking.

If anybody wishes to place a small, friendly wager on the outcome, leave me some contact info in the Comments section. After this paving job in Queens is done, there's a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you. (I'll note that Robert Poole is into privatizing bridges, too.)


Don Brown said...

You beat me to it and you did it better than I would have. Good for you.

Doug Church, NATCA said...

You won't find a bigger supporter of air traffic control modernization than NATCA (National Air Traffic Controllers Association), which is why we are working so hard at present to get the FAA to include us as a stakeholder in the system and a collaborative partner.

However, controllers know better than anyone the laws of physics that apply to the finite capacity constraints of our nation's busiest airports. Even if you WANTED to try and put planes closer together on and around runways to increase capacity and reduce delays, there is a dangerous thing called wake turbulence that must be factored into the space between flights (specifics decided by the type of aircraft involved). Controllers will always err on the side of keeping you safe. We would hope safety never takes a backseat to anything, especially flight delay reduction.

Since we're already maxing out the capacity of our nation's busiest runways at peak hours, we are somewhat skeptical of the capacity-enhancing benefits of NextGen as currently touted by the FAA, Mr. Poole and others.

But we also don't know very much about NextGen yet. We're in the top of the second inning of a nine-inning game.

Bottom line: We would probably bet today that "runways-as-constraint" would win your wager. But check back with us in a couple of years and we may have a somewhat different answer based on the progress of NextGen and how controllers are involved in its development and deployment.

-Doug Church
Director of Communications

Anonymous said...

We don't know much about NextGen yet?
Check back with us in a couple of years?
Controllers err on the side of keeping you safe?

Director of Communications?

Doug Church, NATCA said...


Yes, nobody knows much about NextGen yet. It's not exactly been perfectly explained by the FAA to either Congress or the flying public. Simply saying, "We're going to replace radar with GPS and that's going to unclog our big plumbing problem in the sky" is way too simplistic. The FAA's plan is a large one and obviously very complex. But it's short on details and those are being filled in slowly. NATCA has been shut out of the process thus far by the FAA but the Obama Administration is working to fix that and we hope to soon be treated as collaborative partners in the development of NextGen.

I said check back with us in a couple years because perhaps by then, we'll know better how effective NextGen might be in alleviating delays at major airports. There's no way to know that today. It's all just a plan, with hopes, based on nothing but sheer optimism. Which is a start but it's not very specific.

And yes, controllers always err on the side of keeping you safe, absolutely. I hope that you don't doubt that for some reason. Is there anything I can help answer or find out for you to get a productive dialogue going?


Anonymous said...

What you don't realize is the FAA will make A/C land 22L and 22R or 4L and 4R REGARDLESS what the tail wind or crosswind factor is. Airline companies don't care about saftey, only profits.

Recently at JFK they ordered controllers to clear A/C for ILS 22L with winds 340 gusting to 46 knots. They make us do dangerous stuff every day. They don't care. In their world a certain number of people are allowed to die. Profits vs insurance payout.

That is the problem when people ( FAA ) making the decisions are more concerned with making airlines happy than being safe. Then they can get a cushy job after their govt. retirment.

Amber Markham said...

After doing extensive research on NextGen, I know that there are airport expansions planned as part of it, mildly addressing the lack of concrete problem. However, the majority of attention falls on the technology, being ADS-B, the satellite based GPS system, and e-Loran, it's backup. Even if there is time saved in the sky, we can only land a certain amount of planes per hour at any given airport, based on the availability of runways. I'm not sure how long it will take to build runways at each location, it depends on the funding, crews, and type of ground it's built on. Estimates are between 10 months and 3 years for each full-length runway at the airport. Billions of dollars are being allotted for the technology, while the runway expansion gets a back burner, and the public is still unclear as to why we experience so many delays. Of course the media doesn't help by chasing the most popular story, being the new technology. It's seems to be more interesting.

Airlines overscheduling flights combined with the lack of runway space creates a big problem, which the technology of NextGen doesn't address. It's a good idea, and future generations will benefit from it, but until the airport expansion projects get up to speed, and the airlines are called down on overscheduling, NextGen's technology is fairly useless regarding delays. You can get to the airport faster, but if you don't have a clear runway to land, it's going to result in a delay. All the while wasting fuel and exhausting pilots who don't get extra pay for those extended hours. I believe the runways projects should be funded and expanded first, addressing the delays we already have, and then the new technology should be implemented, allowing us to progress into a new generation of air travel. You can read my article on The Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) at
Feel free to leave your comments and observations.


Amber Markham
Air Traffic Controller

Anonymous said...

your comments suggest living in a world where building runways is no problem and neighborhoods don't care about increased traffic, noise, pollution. There are other solutions. Examine the Origin/Destination of travellers. Let's get some of them out of the sky and back on to rail or buses. This concern over closing runway 13 31 should not have that bad of an impact. JFK has plenty of taxi lanes and the air space only allows restricts landings now anyway to one lane. Sure there will be some impact but today when a northwest or southwest flow are in operation only 2.6 to 16.2% of flights use the second runway.

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