DOT readies for more congestion and delays

 - October 9, 2006, 7:09 AM

With Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead predicting the busiest summer travel season in six years, the Senate aviation subcommittee has been warned that capacity constraints are likely to cause congestion and get progressively worse before they get better.

Although delays appear to be improving at Chicago O’Hare, Mead told the senators that airports that will probably experience growing delays are Philadelphia, La Guardia, Newark, Washington Dulles, Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale.

“Overall, we expect the traffic and delay growth to continue, especially in those markets where we are already experiencing problems,” said Mead. “Total operations are continuing to increase, and summer storms are notorious for adding delays in Southeast and Northeast markets like Atlanta and New York, which are already suffering from capacity-related delays.”

He said that increased regional jet operations and rebounding jet-powered general aviation traffic are increasing demands on high-altitude airspace and airport runways. And waiting in the wings are the new class of very light jets (VLJs) that will operate in the same airspace as larger jets.

In his report to Congress, Mead noted that in July 2000 scheduled flights aboard RJs accounted for 10 percent of all flights. This month, he said, they will account for 32 percent of all flights. And unlike their turboprop predecessors, regional jets occupy the same airspace and require access to the same runways as larger jet aircraft.

While the rest of the industry has shown signs of recovery, general aviation operations as a whole have continued to decline and remain 12.4 percent below 2000 levels. “However, within the GA market, one sector–jet aircraft activity–is improving,” according to Mead. “Flight hours logged by GA jets last year were up 6.2 percent over 2000 levels.”

He said that growth in the number of low-cost carriers, increased international operations and expanding jet-powered general aviation traffic will fuel congestion in the future.

“One of the new challenges that we are likely to encounter within the next year is operations by a new class of aircraft called very light jets or microjets, which are scheduled to enter the market as early as March next year,” Mead told lawmakers. “Priced as low as $1 million per aircraft, microjets may be more attractive to the business travel market than the currently available comparable aircraft priced at about $6 million.”

He added that microjet manufacturers anticipate that these twin-engine, four- to six-passenger jets will find a niche among a variety of corporate and private owners as well as on-demand air-taxi service, and some estimates have placed the global market for VLJs at as high as 1,400 aircraft in the next 10 years. And that does not include the potential for 3,000 more if the air-taxi concept becomes a reality.

Addressing Airspace Congestion

Since the summer of 2000, the FAA has taken a range of actions that have improved the flow of air travel. These include implementing administrative controls at O’Hare, improved communications between airlines and the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center and procedural changes to help manage the effects of bad weather. In addition, a number of new runways have come online, and in January the FAA reduced vertical separation minimums for aircraft flying between 29,000 and 41,000 feet to improve traffic flow.

“Without question, congestion and delays would be much worse this summer without these actions, particularly the administrative controls at Chicago O’Hare and the commissioning of new runways,” said Mead. “However, the anticipated demand for air travel highlights the need for additional actions in both the short and long term.”
He recommended five actions:

• Keep runway projects on schedule.

• Take steps to improve the airspace redesign project.

• Address air traffic controller retirements.

• Get a handle on the Next Generation Air Transportation System, including five-year and 10-year benchmarks.

In the immediate term, said Mead, the FAA must address congestion at O’Hare and La Guardia, where slot restrictions are in effect.

At La Guardia, slot controls were lifted in 2002 and then reinstated when delays became unmanageable. At O’Hare, the administrative controls have been imposed to cap the number of hourly flights at a level consistent with the airport’s capacity. The DOT has a rulemaking under way that would extend these caps for three years until planned runway projects can add capacity.

At La Guardia, new construction is not an option because of land constraints. There–and at other airports where delays could return to a crisis level faster than airports can add capacity–market-based solutions such as slot auctions might allocate scarce capacity without distorting the market. But that entails difficult policy decisions, such as determining the appropriate price for the respective users, as well as establishing who sets the price, who collects the revenues and how those revenues are used.