"World Class Airports," at Regional Assembly 2011

Has Flying been fun lately? Even when the weather is good, the answer is almost certainly no. In addition to pat downs and shoe removals, in our region there's the fact that our three principal airports suffer the worst delays in the country. These delays are only predicted to grow worse when and if the economy revives — something we all desire — and demand for flying increases.

How to ease the region out of this tightening vice will be the subject of a panel discussion at this year's Regional Assembly April 15th at the Waldorf-Astoria. Panelists will discuss how New York can survive as a global world-class city amidst growing aviation needs as well as solutions to get beyond regulatory and environmental hurdles.

Speakers will include Marilyn J. Taylor, Dean, University of Pennsylvania School of Design; Christopher W.N. Cain, Principal, Aviation Strategy and Policy Consultancy, and Chair, Forum for Regional European Airports in Europe; Carmine Gallo, Eastern Regional Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration; Arthur J. Torno, Vice President of New York Operations, American Airlines; and myself, Jeffrey Zupan, Senior Fellow for Transportation at RPA.

Much of our discussions will be based on work that came out of a report almost two years in the making that was recently released, "Upgrading to World Class: The Future of the New York Region's Airports." The mission of the study was to see what might be done to add capacity and cut delays for air travel within the region, and to study the airports' role in the economy.

Since the study released in January, debate has sparked over how to pay for upgrades, how to balance economic competitiveness needs with environmental concerns, and how to coordinate support going forward. Where do we go from here?

The three airports have a combined capacity of about 110 million passengers per year and we are getting back to those numbers as we pull out of the recession. There were 104 million passengers in 2010 and the number is expected to reach 110 million within the next two years. If we are not able to accommodate passengers in the future, the economic revival we all wish for will begin to choke.

Each million passengers not served will cost the region 4,100 jobs, almost $200 million in wages not earned, and more than $500 million in sales not generated. If people do not come here, they do not spend here. If we do nothing, we not only lose those big bucks, but we continue to have the nation's worst airport delays.

The "Upgrading to World Class" report concluded that to ensure a world-class airport system, we must strive for the dual objectives of meeting a projected demand of 150 million passengers in the 2030s and reducing average landing and take-off delays from 20 minutes to the national norm of 10 minutes.

There are many possible ways to meet these objectives. The report looked at them all: shift flying to higher-speed rail, use outlying airports, encourage flying at less busy times, fly larger planes, employ technology to add capacity in the air and at the airports, expand capacity at the region's three major airports.

The report concluded that two actions stand out. The first is to implement NextGen I and II, technological investments and operational and procedural changes that would transform the nation's air-traffic control system, updating it from the outmoded pre-World War II radar system to a satellite GPS system, to keep track of planes more precisely, just as an automobile GPS does.

If you want to see these questions and potential answers better defined, join us at the Regional Assembly April 15th at the Waldorf-Astoria.