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August 05, 2009

Why are airport / airline delays the same, year after year?

Why are airline / airport delays the same, year after year? Why don't the airlines change their schedules and prevent these delays? Because it's profitable. The airlines and airports have calculated that it's in their interest to perpetuate the current system.

Overcrowded airports are the classic "Tragedy of the Commons" problem. When a common resource is overused, the over-user (the airline) profits, and the costs are transferred to the community (the passengers).

When an airline overschedules an airport with more paying passengers, they make more money from ticket sales; the costs of the overscheduling - the tremendous amount of time and inefficiency - is carried by the passengers, not the airline. Although the chipper flight attendant may say that they're sorry about the delay, in fact the airline intentionally schedules these situations year after year.

Local Collaborators

Local government, in some places the Port Authority and in others the Airport Authority, profits from overcrowded airports. Each one of those passengers pays an airport tax on their ticket. Every time they buy an overpriced pizza in the terminal, the airport gets a slice of it.

Nothing is more profitable for an airport than an overscheduled hub operation. Think about a meeting at generic Port Authority, when MegaAir comes in and proposes to route an additional 15,000 people through their terminal everyday.
Port Auth: What does the Port Authority get out of this?
Mega Air: Well, increased landing fees per plane, and the $5 airport use tax for each person that lands, and each person that departs.
Port Auth: We're getting that $5 airport tax already.
Mega Air: But now we're going to route 15,000 connections — people in Toledo, who want to be in Tampa — through your airport. You'll get $5 when they come in, and $5 when they go out.
Port Auth: What's the downside?
Mega Air: Well, if there's thunderstorms or snow, the terminal's going to get very crowded when our connecting schedule goes crazy. It happens every time.
Port Auth: But we'd still get $10 apiece from 15,000 people a day, none of whom would ordinarily be here?
Mega Air: That's right.
Port Auth: Works for me. Let's see, $10 times 15K x 365. That's $55 million a year. Yeah, that works.

Port Authorities start off as a government agency, but they develop their own agendas and grow into a monster. In the NY metro area, the Port Authority of NY and NJ was given the bridges and airports to minimize inter-city and inter-state conflict. The Port Authority has become an autonomous government regime, accountable to nobody but themselves. They're a government that's not accountable to the voters. They're a corporation that acts in its own self-interest, just like any other.

In March 2010, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey will close Runway 13R-31L at Kennedy. This one project (of many) is a $376 million dollar project. That $376,000,000 is mostly federal money that the Port Authority gets to distribute to contractors, suppliers, and vendors. There's a lot of concrete companies and union construction jobs in a $376 million project, and a lot of patronage and influence even when everything's legit.

What a shell game. The Feds put up 90% of the $376M. The Port Authority distributes it and builds influence and power, and then they tell the Feds to piss off. Bada bing, bada boom.

The Port Authority of NY-NJ is bigger than the governor of either state. They're accountable to nobody. They hire lobbying firms to influence Legislatures and Elections. They're a democratic nightmare, a big budget and a powerful organization with no accountability and no oversight. They have their own think tank. The Port Authority has a power base that no politician dares to challenge. By the way, guess who owned the World Trade Center?

One out of six (16%) of Port Authority employees take home more than $100,000 per year. They do this through $8 ticket fees and $8 bridge tolls, some of which is paid by people who make $8 an hour.

The Port Authority profits from the over-scheduling of LGA, EWR, and JFK, and they'll defend their status quo cash-cow against any reform. The Port Authority does not operate those airports for the good of the New York metro population or economy; they operate those airports for the good of the Port Authority. (Rational self-interest, for all you Ayn Rand fans out there.)

Same as it Ever Was, Same as it Ever Was

Last year the Federal Aviation Administration announced that it intended to reintroduce flight caps based on runway capacity at Kennedy airport. One year ago today, Aug. 5, 2008, the Port Authority announced that it would fight the Federal flight restrictions as an unwelcome intrusion. The Port Authority estimated that the caps would cost it $200 Million a year in lost passenger ticket fees alone. (That's the basis of my generic PortAuthority/MegaAir discussion above).

The Port Authority told the airlines that any flight that participated in the slots system might land, but they couldn't pull into the Port Authority's terminal; they'd have to taxi back out and fly away. That's power. A local authority tells the airlines that if they cooperate with FAA, they'll be locked out of their terminals. Once that threat was made, all the airlines publicly supported the Port Authority's position.

New York City's Mayor Bloomberg bucked the Port Authority and backed the FAA's proposal.

The FAA said that if the Port Authority persisted, they'd risk losing federal money.

NY Senator Chuck Schumer told the FAA that they wouldn't get any Senate approvals for personnel or budgets until the issue was resolved. Who blinked? The Feds blinked. The Port Authority won (as the house always does). The airline schedule, and airport delays, continue unabated.

In a final show of chutzpah, the Port Authority published its own list of steps to reduce delays — no flight caps, no new runways, but lots of money for the Port Authority for more taxiways and technology.

Chuck Schumer, who does have a pretty good handle on air traffic staffing (he gets the difference between a trainee and a controller), continues to berate the FAA for delays in the New York area airports. That's incongruous with his actions last year to prevent flight caps based on runway capacity.

Want to know why we have the same delays year after year? Because the Airlines and the Airports find it profitable and in their interest.


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