CHICAGO - DECEMBER 9: A traveler sleeps on a baggage carousel at Midway Airport after flights were canceled during a snowstorm in the early morning hours of December 9, 2005 in Chicago, Illinois. Earlier in the evening a Southwest jet attempting to land in snow slid off the runway, broke through a barrier fence and stopped in the middle of a street. A six-year-old boy riding in a car that was struck by the plane was killed. (Photo by Carlos J. Ortiz/Getty Images)
A new government report criticizes attempts to reduce airport chaos in New York, saying scheduling rules continue to put too many planes in line when weather is the worst, disrupting air travel across the United States.
The limits imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration at John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports in 2008 are too generous and are based on good weather conditions, resulting in a glut of flights when the weather turns ugly, according to the report by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of the Inspector General. To maintain safety, air traffic controllers must hold flights on the ground or add spacing between planes.
"These delays not only affect aircraft traveling to and from the region but can also create a ripple effect as those aircraft fly throughout the nation," the report said.
The result: one-quarter of all airplanes arriving in New York end up delayed or cancelled.
"It's always when you're dog tired and just want to go home and sleep in your own bed," said Anne Lynch, a saleswoman from Haymarket, Va., whose business has her through LaGuardia six to 12 times a year. Her flight is delayed about 40 percent of the time, she said.
Mary Sajdak, a health services consultant from Chicago, said she's been stranded in New York three times in recent years, each time for three days.
"The (airlines) run it with not much of a margin," she said as she waited in LaGuardia. "So when you throw in weather, it's like they can't handle it."
As of August, 28 percent of incoming flights at Newark Liberty International Airport arrived late or were cancelled in 2010. At LaGuardia and JFK, the figure was about 26 percent.
Only San Francisco ranked worse, with about 28.5 percent of incoming flights delayed or cancelled this year.
Together the three New York airports saw 101 million passengers in 2009. They share a 25-mile-wide chunk of airspace, an area that also includes two smaller airports in Teterboro and Linden, New Jersey, six heliports and two seaplane bases. The close proximity means weather-related traffic changes at one airport can quickly disrupt the flow of aircraft at the other two.
The report's recommendations called for the FAA to "reexamine" its rules on scheduling but stopped short of calling for lower limits. Airlines have resisted government efforts to limit their schedules.
"There are better solutions than restraining capacity by imposing flight caps," James May, president of the Air Transport Association of America, which represents airlines, said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "The FAA must ensure that we are utilizing these important airports to their full capacity."
Congestion in the city hit a peak during the summer of 2007, with 40 percent of incoming airline flights delayed or cancelled. To alleviate the problem, the FAA barred airlines from scheduling more than 83 flights per hour at JFK and Newark, and 81 at LaGuardia.
Those limits are near the maximum capacity for those airports in ideal weather, the report said.
But during bad weather, the capacity drops to 64-67 flights per hour at JFK, 69-74 at LaGuardia, and 61-66 at Newark. The scheduling caps do nothing to prevent delays during those times, the report said.
The slowdown ripples throughout the United States, though no one knows exactly how severe the effect is, the report said. One widely quoted estimate, that New York causes three-quarters of all delays in the United States, is probably an exaggeration, the report said.
To reduce delays, the schedule limits in New York should be more flexible, the inspector general's office said. It cited the rules at London's Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted airports, where regulators set lower limits during the winter months. London has 20 percent fewer delays than New York, it said.
The global economic slowdown has eased the problem somewhat because fewer people are flying. But as the economy improves, delays are sure to worsen again, the report said.
To prepare for more traffic, the FAA is working on redesigning New York's airspace, said Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the agency.
"There are so many airports in such a small geographic area there," Brown said. The overhaul, she said, "was designed to help smooth some of the arrival and departure routes in a way that would reduce conflicts between the airports."
The arrival of the FAA's NextGen air traffic control system should also help, she said. Under that system, aircraft use satellites to determine their own position, then beam that information to controllers and other planes. The system is more accurate than radar, the FAA says, allowing planes to fly closer together and on more direct routes.
Planners have been working through bugs in the NextGen system, including computer software that misidentified planes traveling on high-altitude routes. Aircraft owners have also grumbled about the cost of installing transmitters in the U.S. fleet.
The best solution to New York's crunch would be a new runway at one of the airports, said Jeffrey Zupan, a transportation expert at the Regional Plan Association, which advocates for development projects in the New Jersey-New York area. But there is little room to expand, he said.
The group opposes the idea of lower scheduling caps, Zupan said.
"That's not solving anything, that's hoping the problem will go away," Zupan said.