I am sitting at Newark airport and blogging about delays is New York’s airports in the hope of reverse-jinxing my flight. The WSJ had an interesting article on the fact that New York’s airports account for half of all flight delays (“N.Y. Airports Account for Half of All Flight Delays”.)
The title of the article is based on the following observation:
In the first half of 2011, the region’s airspace — defined as the big three airports, plus Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, which caters to corporate jets, and Philadelphia International Airport — handled 12 percent of all domestic flights but accounted for nearly half of all delays in the nation. In the same period in 2005, they represented just a third of all delays, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.
As someone that lived in NY for several years and spent tens of hours in these airports due to delays (once even spending 14 hours at Newark with a dog and two kids), I did not find this statement too shocking. I think the interesting part is not so much the delays in these airports but how they inflict delays on other airports:
These delays ripple across the country. A third of all delays around the nation each year are caused, in some way, by the New York airports, according to the F.A.A. Or, as Paul McGraw, an operations expert with Airlines for America, the industry trade group, put it, “When New York sneezes, the rest of the national airspace catches a cold.
But the most interesting part sf the level of dependency between these airports, that can explain these statistics:
- The New York area airports share the same weather, and thus when NY is covered with fog or clouds, all have to pace departures and arrivals.
- The main airports in the New York Metro area are the hubs of the major airlines. Furthermore, the airlines that use these airports as hubs use other congested airports as hubs: United uses EWR and ORD, American Airlines use JFK and ORD, and Delta use JFK and Atlanta. I am not trying to describe causality here. Clearly, O’Hare is congested because both American Airlines and United use it as a hub, and not because United flies from another congested airport.
- Flight routes are shared among the airports, causing them almost to behave as one single big airport
A change of winds at Kennedy, for instance, can affect what runway is used at La Guardia so that planes heading into either airport do not cross paths. In turn, that can affect how traffic is directed into Newark Liberty and Teterboro
These issues have been partly addressed recently:
Last October, it introduced a new takeoff route out of Kennedy — which it calls the “J.F.K. wrap” — that takes planes headed west on a northern loop over Nassau and Westchester Counties before sending them onto the traditional highways in the sky that guide planes to cities like San Francisco or Denver.
All of these mean that even if 12% of the flights are from NYC, we are bound to have disproportionate delays. There many solutions that being offered, from using more precise route tracking to giving more precise time frame to airlines to leave their gate so they can reduce their time on the taxiways, and cut delays before takeoff. (We already discussed improvements at JFK here: “Planes get in line at JFK“)
But I take comfort in this:
Chicago once had the worst airspace in the country. But after O’Hare completed a 3,000-foot extension of its busiest runway in 2008, the airport experienced the largest drop in delayed flights among the nation’s top airports. The new runway enabled O’Hare to accommodate 9 percent more flights than the previous summer, which meant 16 more hourly arrivals in optimal weather. In poor weather — the litmus test for any airport — O’Hare can land 84 planes an hour, compared with the 68 to 72 before the new runway.