World Class or Worst in Class: Our Airport Dilemma

As snow piled high last Wednesday night and Thursday morning, cancelling all air traffic in the region, some 300 hearty souls trudged to lower Manhattan to the glass-and-steel Chase Manhattan building to discuss how the region will keep flying in both good weather and bad. The region is now in danger of a permanent lid on the number of people who can fly in and out of our Tri-state region even when the skies are clear.

The conference coincided with the release of a new RPA report, almost two years in the making, called "Upgrading to World Class: The Future of the New York Region's Airports." The full report can be seen and downloaded here.

Why should we care about limits on the amount of flying? Because limits would prevent the region from growing economically, which would mean job and wage losses. The impacts would be enormous.

Like the report, the subject of the conference was to discuss how best to overcome the twin problems at the airports — greater delays than anywhere else in the nation and a lack of capacity. We're now limited to about 110 million passengers per year, which will be exceeded in the next two or three years.

To ensure that New York maintains a world-class aviation system, authorities should strive for the dual objectives of meeting a projected demand of 150 million passengers by the 2030s and reducing average 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 busy times. Fly larger planes. Employ technology to add capacity in the air and at the airports. And finally, expand capacity at the region's three major airports.

The report concluded that two remedies stand out, and they were discussed at length at the conference.

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. By modernizing air traffic control, planes can be safely spaced more closely together when landing and taking off, thus substantially increasing airport capacity. Work is underway by the Federal Aviation Administration now, and the deployment of NextGen is expected in phases, first by 2018 and then in 2025. But federal funding is not assured, and the airlines must re-equip their aircraft to make it work. Implementing NextGen would address capacity needs for the next five to ten years.

Beyond those five or ten years, we'll have to build new runways at Newark and Kennedy airports. Expanding the capacity of these two major airports, while not easy, will be necessary.

Of all the actions considered, expansion at Kennedy and Newark airports provide the greatest potential for increasing capacity and reducing delays. Options to expand La Guardia are not possible without huge impacts on surrounding communities. The Port Authority should begin to plan now since airport expansion will not happen overnight and serious capacity deficiencies will become even more apparent in the next ten years.

At Kennedy, four alternative configurations for new runways meet basic airspace and capacity criteria. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. The choice among them, with possible variations and phasing plans, should be made by the Port Authority in the next few years, working with the local and environmental communities. At Newark, one configuration stands out. It is within the airport footprint (minimizing impacts off-site), but it would require the redesign and relocations of the existing three terminals on the airport.

In addition to airport expansion and NextGen air traffic control improvements, other actions could help and should move forward, but they are not panaceas: faster inter-city rail service, greater use of Stewart Airport in the Hudson Valley and MacArthur in Suffolk County, thinning out some redundant flights, upping the carrying capacity of aircraft at peak times and adding flights in the few remaining off-peak hours are all worthy of action.

However, none of these, even when added together, come even close to providing for the anticipated growth. Higher-speed rail does not do the trick because so many passengers flying into and out of JFK and Newark are connecting to elsewhere, and many who are close enough to take trains already do. Stewart falls short because it is just too far for most travelers and even a rail connection would not change this much — especially now that a new trans-Hudson rail crossing is off the table. And there is little leeway to add flights in the off-peak, with flights operating at or close to the airports' capacity all day long.

A successful expansion or reconfiguration at Kennedy and Newark, along with NextGen, can meet the twin goals of capacity and delay reduction in the 2030s and beyond.