Surprise! New York Area Airports Still Suck

In a groundbreaking new report [pdf], the U.S. Department of Transportation's Inspector General has discovered that flight delays at John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark Airports remain terrible and make New Yorkers -- and, indirectly, people throughout the rest of the country (yes, we're that important) -- absolutely miserable.

While the numbers have actually improved somewhat (the Associated Press says one-quarter of flights landing at metro area airports are either late or canceled, while the DOT report says that number was "over 40 percent" back in 2007), New York City airports still cause a major headache for travelers thanks to three main reasons:

1. There's Too Many Damn Passengers! The report claims that between 1999 and 2008, the number of flights leaving New York has increased by 8 percent -- "the equivalent of adding a mid-sized airport's flight operations (e.g., Albuquerque or New Orleans) without building a single new runway," it says. You know whose fault that is? JetBlue (whose New York departures skyrocketed from 5,071 to 64,881 in eight years) and Delta, who opened an international hub at JFK that boosted the airline's departures by 46 percent.

2. There's Too Many Damn Planes! Did you know the newest runway at any of the three New York area airports was built at Newark in the early 1970s? Turns out that with so much air traffic, they run out of places to squeeze those planes into when something pesky and unexpected (like bad weather, for instance) rears its ugly head. Sadly, the DOT doesn't expect anyone to fix this soon -- according to the report, the Port Authority conducted a study in 2007 that found it was "not feasible" to install a new airport at JFK. Such a project, the Port Authority said, would be too expensive and controversial, especially since it would require building within "a protected environmental area." Oh, well. More sitting on the tarmac for you!

3. Sky Space Is Finite, Too Not only are there too many planes for the runway, there are too many planes for the sky! The report calls New York's airspace "the densest in the country" due to the proximity of the region's three airports to each other. This means one airport's problem can cause a domino effect for the others in order to clear airspace and keep the jets from crashing into each other in the sky or something. (Which would probably be worse than a delayed flight, if you think about it.)

The report also blames the Federal Aviation Administration for a "flight caps" rule it imposed in 2008. Unfortunately, the FAA's goal was to reduce delays' severity, not to reduce the number of delays, so they just set the caps based on how many planes could zoom through New York on a clear, sunny, perfect-for-air-travel day. (Or, as the DOT puts it, the FAA's limits "are too generous and are based on good weather conditions, resulting in a glut of flights when the weather turns ugly.")

But when's the last time New York weather really turned "ugly," anyway?

[shernandez@villagevoice.com]


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