Fliers Lose as Airport Slot Auctions Idea Crashes

Thursday, May 28, 2009

TRANSPORTATION Secretary Ray LaHood announced May 13 in New York that the plan to auction takeoff and landing slots at two of the area's airports was being shelved. This was music to the ears of airline executives and airport operators who got a stay from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit last year to stop the Bush administration proposal to ease air congestion. But for air travelers this decision should be as welcome as a captain saying, "We're 75th for takeoff."

A third of all U.S. flights go through the New York metropolitan area. A hiccup at any of its four major airports can affect two-thirds of the nation's air traffic. Air travelers learned that lesson during aviation's annus horribilis -- 2007 -- when they endured the worst delays since the government started tracking such statistics in 1995. The Bush administration sought to tackle the problem by allowing only 81 takeoffs and landings per hour at John F. Kennedy and Newark Liberty International airports. And it pushed to auction takeoff and landing slots at those airports during peak travel times to reduce congestion and spark competition.

We wholeheartedly supported auctions then for the same reason we do now. Airline schedules are out of whack. It is neither rational nor reasonable to cram the skies with flights at peak times. If the airlines want to fly in and out of two of the nation's busiest airports during those heavy travel hours, they should have to pay a premium. It's a pity this idea is going nowhere. Mr. LaHood's decision, following a 30-day comment period, will snuff it out for good. The secretary says he's "still serious about tackling aviation congestion in the New York region." This summer he plans to gather all the stakeholders to figure out how to move forward.

Fiddling with flight schedules will only get you so far. Ultimately, what's needed is the full implementation of the satellite-based NextGen radar system. Right now, air traffic control is working on a system that is the technological equivalent of Pong. NextGen would be as advanced as the global positioning system in your car and would allow controllers and pilots to see the exact locations of planes. This would relieve congestion by allowing more precise routes to be charted and letting planes fly closer together within them. Securing funding for this has been contentious. Slot auctions would have provided the perfect revenue stream to get it done.

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