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August 06, 2009

Eliminating Most Airline / Airport Delays

How can we prevent airline delays and airport delays across the nation? I can tell you how to do it, but to be fair I must say that this solution will be politically unpopular because it cramps the chosen status quo of airports and airlines. Passengers, however, will love this. There's both an engineering factor and a policy factor.

Before I get all lofty and theoretical, I'd like to share a phrase that I learned a long time ago: you can't put ten pounds of $h17 in a five-pound-bag. The basis of this approach is to recognize our five-pound bags, and adjust accordingly.

Engineering Factors in Eliminating Airline Delays

We need to limit scheduled airline traffic so that it does not exceed the known hourly capacity of both the arrival and departure airports.
That's a simple sentence that, in fairness, requires some exploration for details.

"known hourly capacity"
Every major airport has a chart that shows the airport capacity in terms of the number of arrivals and departures per hour, in "visual" (great) weather, in marginal weather, and in instrument conditions (bad weather). These airport capacity charts may also vary by the prevailing wind, which affects runway selection decisions. Airport capacity values are generated by the FAA.

Here is a basic airport capacity chart for EWR, LGA, and JFK.
Airport Capacity in (Arrivals+Departures)/Hour, by Type and (Freq) of Weather
Visual (Great) Weather81, (86%)88, (82%)82, (81%)
Marginal Weather81, (5%)80, (9%)79, (10%)
Instrument (Bad) Weather65, (9%)64, (9%)72, (9%)

If you wanted to avoid all delays, you would set the airport capacity at the lowest of the three rates, using the instrument weather rates. If some delays were acceptable, you could set the airport capacity at the marginal weather rates.

If we required that airline schedules could not exceed the airport capacity at departure and destination airports, we would eliminate most airline/ airport delays. The remaining delays would be due to snow/ice storms.

"limit scheduled airline traffic"
It's a simple thing to say that if the hourly capacity is 70 airplanes, then the airlines shouldn't schedule more than 70. The implementation is much more complex. Some airlines are competitors. Coordination between airlines can be monopolistic. One approach to allocating limited resources (slots per hour) is to conduct an auction, allowing market forces to determine the value of the slots.

Policy Options in Eliminating Airport Delays

So we've decided that the Metroville Airport has a capacity of 70 airliners an hour. How do we decide which 70 airliners get to come and go?

One approach is for the Federal government to conduct an auction of slots. While economists tend to love this approach, local government resents Big Uncle Sam choosing their airlines. I'd like to point out a few things:
Who builds airports? Local government, usually a County or Authority.
Who owns airports? Local government.
Who manages airports? Local government.
Can an airline fly into an airport without gate/ramp space? No.
Who sells the airlines gate/ramp space? Local government.
Who profits from the airport? Local government.

I think local government, the Port Authority, should allocate their airport's slots. If they want to give the majority to Delta, that's great. If they want to sell to the highest bidder -- that's great, too. The revenues from selling those slots should go to the Port Authority. It's their airport.

Finally, every new paradigm must have an incentive-enforcement mechanism, or else it's a paper tiger. Any airport that allows an airline schedule that exceeds airport capacity pays a $5,000 penalty per airplane, per day. Any airline that exceeds airport capacity pays a $5,000 penalty per airplane, per day. This will make them very interested in honoring the capacity limits. They're going to start caring about delays, because we're moving some costs from the passengers to the airline/airport.

Other Than Snow and Ice, You May Never Be Delayed Again

Airlines will want to sell the same number of tickets that they did pre-constraint. They'll introduce larger aircraft into their fleet mix, so they can carry the same number of people in fewer airplanes. Industry emphasis will shift from numbers of flights to numbers of people, which is closer to the ideal parameter.

The cashflow of giving the Port Authority the revenue from any slots auctions, or allowing them to integrate slots into their business arrangements with the airlines, should provide sufficient inducement to change the status quo.

To summarize: We can eliminate most airline and airport delays with these steps:
  • Airline schedules must fit within (departure and destination) airport capacity.
  • Airport capacity is set as a federal standard.
  • The Port Authority or Airport Authority allocates their slots at their airport, within the Fed standard. Revenues go to the Port Authority.
  • $5000 penalty for scheduling over capacity for both airport and airline, per plane per day.

This will eliminate most airline and airport delays.

Tomorrow, we'll provide an additional solution to delays at JFK, EWR, and LGA. This additional innovation will eliminate delays (except for snow, ice, and T-storms) at JFK, EWR, and LGA for $15 million over five years.

If you want to send me 10% of that amount, that's fine, but it's not necessary.


Anonymous said...

Slot management is one thing...

1)It makes sense to limit slots to normal capacity (but can this be be based on the 48 hour forecast? as opposed to effectively worst case scenario ie full IFR movement rate); if 82% (or whatever figure) of the time you achieve a higher movement rate why would you want to limit this rate 100% of the time; yes it will have a negative effect on the days with 18% (or whatever figure) you have left, but why not maximise rates when available.

Perhaps the airlines get IFR rates for schedules and you top up with others, private jets, charter etc. then when the weather is clagged in you don't let the privates have access etc. but where do they go?

2) If you allocate 40 landing slots and hour and they all turn up in the first 15 minutes of the hour you still end up with significant delays. A schedule is one thing, reality is another. Airlines claim an 8:05 departure will get less custom if the direct competition is running an 8:00 departure to same destination etc. (cause most punters are stupid)

But I love the thought process so far, keep it up; getting someone to listen is harder.

Vannevar said...

Dear Anon 2:07,
First, thanks for your comment. It's just me, but I'd use the IFR rate - because then the airport is always going to be adequate. Popups and such will fill up the slack on nice days. I'd rather have an airport at 95% capacity than 120%.

Also, you're right about the 15-minute perspective. I don't want to throttle things down to 10-minute slices; I think if there's 40/hour and there's 40 planes in a bunch, local people will do their best and smooth it out. It still beats 40/hour and 80 in a bunch.

Thanks again, V.

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