Contention Over Proposal for N.Y. Airports

By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 1, 2008

NEW YORK -- Passengers flying in and out of the three main airports serving this city have become accustomed to the lines and crowds, the constant delays, the sight of exhausted travelers sleeping on the floor by the gates.

The problem is too many airplanes sharing too little space in the sky, giving New York the worst air congestion nationwide. But the impact is not just on New York : A third of U.S. flights travel through New York airspace, and flight cancellations and delays at area airports account for three-quarters of significant delays at airports across the country, according to the U.S. Transportation Department.

To manage the congestion, Bush administration officials have grudgingly maintained caps on the number of flights per hour at the three airports -- Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark Liberty -- and have even added new caps, though such measures run counter to the White House's pro-competition principles.

Capping the number, officials complain, hinders competition by preventing new, upstart airlines from entering the market, and existing airlines from expanding operations. To mitigate the impact of the caps, the administration is now proposing to auction off some takeoff and landing slots to the highest bidder.

The proposal has the support of New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), but it has sparked an ideological battle over how far market controls should extend in the skies, attracting fierce opposition from figures such as Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the three major area airports.

The critics won the opening round last week, as an arm of the Federal Aviation Administration halted the first auction. A dispute resolution office blocked bidding for Newark on two takeoff and landing slots -- permission to use the international airport's runways at specific times.

The larger auction plan would compel major airlines to give up 10 percent to 20 percent of their takeoff and landing slots over time so that they could be put up for auction.

"The resource is scarce and the best way to allocate it is a price mechanism," said Tyler D. Duvall, the Transportation Department's acting undersecretary for policy.

"It's part of a larger picture: We've got congestion on the roads, in our ports, in our airports," Duvall added, outlining the wider policy of the current administration. In each of these cases, he said, the market can best clear the way.

But others say auctions will do nothing to resolve the capacity problem, and could cause more confusion and incur more costs for customers than they relieve.

"This is an ideological, untested experiment from those in an ivory tower," said Schumer, who has introduced a bill to block the auctions. "This misguided plan to sell slots to the highest bidder won't make anyone's plane take off faster. It will just cost consumers more to fly and throw La Guardia, JFK and Newark into chaos."

Other critics say that only the largest airlines would have the funds to win the auctioned slots; that the costs would simply be passed on to consumers; and that the auctions would cause airlines to drop less-traveled routes.

"Airports have been viewed for years as an important public resource," said William DeCota, the director of aviation for the Port Authority. "Price is a very bad basis to allocate this scarce capacity."

DeCota argued that the federal government lacks the authority to sell off this resource, and added, "There would be no impact on delay; that's the bottom line."

The Port Authority, which has joined a lawsuit against the plan and testified in Congress against it, has threatened to block flights that use the auctioned slots. The FAA has said airports could lose federal funding if they block flights.

The Air Transport Association, the trade group of the major airlines, has said the Transportation Department has a "continued fixation" on auctions, and should instead focus on steps to increase capacity.

There is certainly no shortage of plans for how to resolve congestion. A flight delay task force assembled by the Port Authority recently came up with 77 technical initiatives, from permanently reopening military airspace to improving air traffic control technology.

The goal of the Transportation Department is to begin auctions at Newark, Kennedy and La Guardia before the end of the year. But with the legal, administrative and legislative battles in place, it is not clear if this will be possible, officials on all sides of the issue said.

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