One of the things I like about living in greater Chicago is O’Hare. That might sound weird if you know O’Hare as only a place to change planes. But living in Chicago, I almost always have a direct flight to wherever I am going and I am sheltered from the worst part of O’Hare; if things are delayed bad enough, I like Cartman can go home.
That doesn’t mean that I would ever hold up O’Hare as a paragon of a well-managed system. Airlines occasionally do some screwy things that essentially guarantee problems for passengers. The Chicago Tribune had recent article highlighting one such case (Airlines overpack for summer travel, Jun 7). This graph tells the story:
Airlines have been adding flights at O’Hare and while they have trimmed offerings in some time slots (there are now 23 fewer flights at 8PM then there use to be), they have exacerbated some other peaks.
Travelers at O’Hare International Airport face delays this summer that could be easily avoided if the airlines simply overcame their penchant for jamming too many flights into the most-congested hours, the Federal Aviation Administration has warned.
The FAA says the carriers have scheduled almost as many flights as the airport can handle in peak travel times on good-weather days, and added operations that far outstrip O’Hare’s capacity in stormy weather.
By tightly scheduling departures, the airlines are creating waves of delays that expand and can last all day, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said. Much of the problem could be avoided if United Airlines and American Airlines simply spread out departures and arrivals during slower periods when there is plenty of excess capacity on runways and at gates, FAA officials said.
The magic numbers here are 59 and 48. 59 is the combined number of take offs and landings O’Hare can handle in 15 minutes in good weather while 48 is the corresponding number in bad weather. Thus if we look at Thursday mornings between 8:00AM and 8:15AM, we see that the airport is flirting with disaster. American has 27 flights scheduled while United is good for 39 more (to say nothing of Delta and other carriers). Even in perfect conditions not all of those flights can take off on time and if there is rain, the slow down could stretch for hours.
The FAA has a limited ability to force airlines to change their schedule outside of jawboning. The airlines, of course, say they are just giving customers what they want:
The airlines say they base their schedules on when their customers want to fly. They also say they’ve made major gains in “de-peaking” their schedules to reduce the gaps between flight operations going all-out versus little activity. Airline executives also point the finger back at the FAA, saying the government is criticizing airline business decisions when it should be delivering a modernized air-traffic system that can handle whatever schedules the airlines devise.
I see this as intriguing problem. Clearly this is not how a social planner would want to schedule the use of O’Hare’s runways but there is no obvious market oriented way to fix the problem (at least that I can see). One could try peak load pricing the more overcrowded hours, but I don’t think that is allowed at airports.
I would also conjecture that competition between American and United actually makes things worse here. At Dallas-Ft Worth, American is king and if they over schedule a time slot, they will feel the brunt of the pain. They internalize the congestion externality and balance delays with offering convenience to customers. At O’Hare, they have to share the sandbox and thus a large slice of the congestion externality falls on United. American therefore has limited incentive to alter its schedule. If they did, they would be at a disadvantage to United in what they offer customers and they wouldn’t capture the full benefit of reduced congestion.