Airlines lobby for more constraints on bizav traffic

 - July 30, 2007, 12:22 PM

U.S. airlines are getting a lot of attention of late, with dire tales of gridlocked traffic and passengers trapped for hours because of weather problems, stretched-thin logistics chains and full flights. It’s a zoo out there, which is good for business aviation because the alternative has never looked worse.

“Civil aviation in the United States is at a tipping point,” said Delta Air Lines COO James Whitehurst, testifying on July 19 before the U.S. Senate subcommittee on energy, natural resources and infrastructure. “Over the next decade, commercial aviation either will continue to grow and fuel our entire national economy, driving upward of $1.2 trillion in U.S. economic activity and 11.4 million U.S. jobs, or it will slide into a troubled and unreliable system plagued by inadequate infrastructure and facilities that are unable to meet the demands of the flying and shipping public.”

While what Whitehurst said is probably true, the airlines are also trying to shift blame onto business aviation, claiming that business jet operators are not paying their fair share of ATC costs and that they are not subject to the same delay-causing constraints that affect the airlines.

The airline’s lobbying group, the Air Transport Association (ATA), has asked the FAA to impose the same constrictions on business jet traffic flying out of Teterboro as it does on airlines using the big three New York-area airports–Newark, La Guardia and Kennedy–ignoring the fact that air traffic controllers cannot play favorites between airline and general aviation aircraft. “Since corporate jet flights now represent roughly 30 percent of all New York terminal radar approach control activity,” the association wrote in a July 2 press release, “ATA has asked the FAA to impose restrictions on operators that today may be unaffected by ground delay programs.”

In fact, ground delays occur at general aviation airports. At the end of June, for example, an ATC advisory constrained departures from Teterboro (and other New York-area airports) to South Florida due to thunderstorms and high traffic volume.

NBAA responded to the July 2 ATA release, pointing out that:
•    Department of Transportation (DOT) data show that almost all delays are caused by weather and the airlines themselves.
•    General aviation aircraft rarely use the same airports as the airlines: FAA traffic data for 2006 reveals that, at the nation’s 10 busiest airports, general aviation accounts for less than 4 percent of all aircraft operations. Furthermore, general aviation aircraft operators prefer to fly above and below the altitudes used by the airlines; the operators also commonly have the ability to change schedules and flight routes, all helping to reduce aviation system congestion.
•    The number of turbine business aircraft in the U.S., which the airlines blame for system congestion, is deceptive because the figure overlooks the fact that turbine business aircraft average only about 370 flight hours per year– less than 10 percent of the flight hours averaged by each aircraft in an airline’s fleet. The hours flown by business aircraft have remained essentially constant for several years, while airport hub operations have increased.
•    National Air Traffic Controllers Association president Patrick Forrey recently stated, “Severe weather accounts for over 70 percent of delays, which are exacerbated by the hub-and-spoke operation, and the rest is either airline staffing woes, air traffic controller staffing shortages or the airlines’ own operations.”

It is difficult to assign numbers to both sides of this issue. The airlines have plenty of statistics showing how often they are late or cancel flights, but the general aviation industry has no such statistics-keeping service. There are anecdotes: James Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation Association, mentioned at the June NATA Air Charter Summit that he had been delayed six hours one day in early June trying to depart from Teterboro in his King Air.

According to FlightStats, which tracks airline-delay statistics at 40 North American airports, June 2007 was one of the worst months for the airline business. “It’s really bad out there,” said a spokeswoman. But this past June wasn’t the worst in the history of airlines, she added. “Other months this year have exceeded it in terms of certain length of delays.”

Comparing the first six months of this year to the same period last year, FlightStats found that while total scheduled airline flights for those 40 airports decreased by 1 percent, on-time flights dropped by 6 percent. Cancellations were up 54 percent, and more flights were late (up 7 percent), very late (up 14 percent) or excessively late (up 23 percent). Late is defined by FlightStats as a flight delayed 15+ minutes; very late as delayed 30+ minutes; and excessive as delayed 45+ minutes.

For the month of June compared to the same month last year, total flights increased by 14 percent and on-time flights climbed 6 percent, but 133 percent more were cancelled, 24 percent more were late, 29 percent more were very late and 43 percent more were excessively late.

“Regardless of what ATA wants you to think,” said AOPA president Phil Boyer, “every user of the National Airspace System feels the pain when severe weather limits the amount of traffic the system can handle. And the biggest issue confronting the airspace around New York is the overwhelming number of airliners scheduled in and out of three hub airports. Corporate aircraft using the area’s satellite airports are routed under or around the paths flown by the airlines. And when that won’t work, they sit on the ground, too.”

There is no question that airline scheduling practices, weather and the limited number of airports that they serve are causing major traffic bottlenecks. What to do about these problems is still being debated. Some legislators think a segment fee for business jets will help pay for NextGen, which will allow ATC to handle a lot more traffic.

The Government Accountability Office has determined that the existing financing system can easily pay for the NextGen ATC upgrades needed to accommodate more traffic. Whatever method is used to pay for NextGen, perhaps someone needs to add in the legislation a requirement that delays for general aviation traffic be measured so that there are statistics to reveal how non-airline aircraft truly impact the U.S. air transportation system.