Flights at N.Y.'s JFK To Be Capped

John F. Kennedy International Airport could see its numbers of departures and arrivals limited and landing rights auctioned off.
John F. Kennedy International Airport could see its numbers of departures and arrivals limited and landing rights auctioned off. (By Chris Hondros -- Getty Images)
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Federal regulators are expected to announce measures today restricting flights at a major New York airport in a move that they hope will alleviate chronic flight delays across the country.

The controversial proposal would limit the number of departures and arrivals at John F. Kennedy International Airport while setting the stage for a similar flight ceiling at nearby Newark Liberty International Airport, according to federal sources. Flights at the third major New York area airport, LaGuardia, are already capped.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters is also expected to announce the government's intention to establish a system under which takeoff and landing rights, known as slots, at JFK would be auctioned. Transportation officials think that would more fairly allocate demand for the airport's runways.

President Bush hinted at such a measure in remarks Monday, saying that a "market-driven solution" was needed to parcel out limited slots among competing airlines.

Transportation Department officials would not comment on the proposals before today's announcement and cautioned that the measures were still in flux. Peters is also expected to reveal short-term measures to mitigate delays during the coming holidays. Those include opening up military airspace in the Northeast and along the West Coast to commercial flights from 6 p.m. Friday through 6 a.m. Dec. 26, airline executives and federal officials said.

Depending on what form they finally take, the department's plans for JFK could be opposed by major air carriers and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs JFK, Newark and LaGuardia airports. Representatives of the carriers and the Port Authority argue that caps and auctions would increase fares and reduce options for consumers. They have been pushing regulators to increase capacity at JFK by untangling snarls in the airspace over New York and improving in-flight navigation technology.

"I am absolutely nervous" about the announcement, said William R. DeCota, director of aviation for the Port Authority. "This has enormous implications for the consumer, enormous implications for air service and enormous implications for the economy."

Regulators have focused intensely on JFK because there has been a surge in flights at the airport: departures are up 50 percent since 2003. That increase is occurring in some of the most congested airspace in the world. When planes are unable to take off at JFK because of backups, the delays quickly spread throughout the aviation system, regulators say.

Through October, 74 percent of flights nationwide were delayed, canceled or diverted, the airlines' second-worst performance since 1995, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. In 2000, slightly more flights delayed.

Industry executives and federal aviation officials said they expect the final plan to call for hourly caps at JFK of 80 to 83 takeoffs and departures. During peak periods, it is not uncommon for there to be 110 departures and landings per hour at JFK, regulators have said.

Regulators have been working with airlines since late October to voluntarily set their schedules for next summer. The Federal Aviation Administration initially proposed that the hourly caps be 80 or 81 departures and arrivals. But because carriers are planning to spread their operations more evenly throughout the day, the number of flights at JFK will increase next summer, federal officials and industry executives said.

While industry leaders said they had a decent feel for what the Transportation Department will propose in terms of caps, they were more wary of its auction proposal.

Air carriers and the Port Authority oppose auctions, saying that such a system could be too complicated to implement, may reduce competition and lead to higher operating expenses.

Some carriers worry that buying a few slots at high prices could make it difficult to get into JFK.

Meanwhile, carriers already serving JFK are particularly worried about any plans to auction existing slots. They think that would penalize them after they have invested billions of dollars in airport facilities, marketing campaigns and other programs specific to JFK, airline representatives said.

"We have told the administration and the department that we are adamantly opposed to the auctions of existing slots," said Jim May, president of the Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents many of the major airlines. "That's where we draw the line in the sand."

Robert Land, a senior vice president at JetBlue Airways, a major carrier at JFK, said in an e-mail that he understood why officials needed to implement caps to reduce delays. "However," he wrote, "we support the implementation only as a means to bridge us to the point in time when capacity enhancements begin" to work.

Land added that JetBlue opposes "the imposition of government auctions to fly routes we already provide" because they "do nothing to increase capacity or reduce congestion."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company