By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 20, 2007
With flight delays at near record levels, top federal officials yesterday announced flight restrictions at a major New York airport that they describe as the epicenter of the nation's air traffic snarls.
The controversial rules limit the number of hourly departures and arrivals at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Regulators said they will set as yet undetermined flight ceilings at nearby Newark Liberty International Airport to prevent airlines from shifting operations there, officials said.
Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said regulators were forced to take action to prevent New York and nationwide flight delays from growing worse next year. Through October, 26 percent of flights were delayed, canceled or diverted -- the second-worst performance for airlines since 1995, federal statistics show.
"Absent intervention, next summer would have been even worse than the summer of '07," Peters said in remarks announcing the restrictions.
Under the new rules, the number of departures and arrivals will be capped at 82 or 83 per hour for two years starting in March. At times, more than 100 hourly flights were scheduled during peak hours at the airport this year, regulators said.
Regulators and airlines have been working for months to adjust their schedules to fit under the caps.
Authorities have focused intensely on JFK because there has been a surge in flights at the airport. When planes are unable to take off at JFK because of backups, the delays quickly spread throughout the aviation system, regulators say.
Peters also announced a system that would auction off the right to fly at JFK if regulators are able to boost the airport's hourly capacity. For example, if the hourly caps were raised from 83 to 85 flights, federal officials would auction off the two added slots to airlines, regulators said.
Regulators backed away from instituting "congestion pricing," or setting an increasing level of fees for takeoffs and landings during peak times to reduce snarls. The department faced stiff opposition for imposing such fees from officials who run New York's airports and representatives of air carriers.
U.S. airlines-- once highly critical of caps -- reacted favorably to Peters's announcement yesterday, saying they felt flight restrictions would reduce delays and improve operations.
"Overall, a balanced approach has taken place," said Jim May, president of the Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents major U.S. air carriers. "It is a result that is not only acceptable but positive from airlines' perspective."
However, May and airline executives said they were still not happy about the department's auction plans, which they think will unfairly penalize carriers that already have cut back on flights at JFK. Delta's chief executive, Richard Anderson, said in a statement that "not only are auctions illegal, but they will do nothing to eliminate congestion."
"Moreover, carriers such as Delta that have substantially reduced their schedules should have their flights restored before DOT sells new capacity to the highest bidder."
The New York and New Jersey Port Authority, which runs New York's major airports, criticized caps and auctions, saying in a statement that such measures will "cut the number of passengers at JFK, reduce travel options and increase prices for every passenger."
The International Air Transport Association, which represents U.S. and international air carriers, also criticized auctions. "This is a complex situation, and an eBay approach -- slot auctions -- will not solve the problem," said Giovanni Bisignani, IATA's director general and chief executive.