GAO: Operational Evolution Plan 'falls far short'

 - July 14, 2008, 7:44 AM

Unless airline passenger traffic remains at the current reduced levels over the long term, the FAA’s Operational Evolution Plan (OEP) to increase system capacity will “fall far short” of meeting growing needs, according to the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress.

The agency said increasing system capacity would require bolder and more controversial measures, such as building new  airline airports or limiting the number of takeoffs and landings during peak periods at these high-volume fields. Particularly troubling to business aviation is GAO’s proposal to restrict general aviation aircraft from using these airports altogether.

Despite recent reductions in flight delays stemming from September 11 and the current economic slump, the GAO said it is unlikely passenger traffic will remain at reduced levels over the long term. Therefore, it has recommended that the Transportation Secretary evaluate capacity-enhancing measures that are not in the 10-year OEP, and create a blueprint on both short-term (less than 10 years) and long-term (10 to 40 years) measures that are needed.

“Where necessary, this blueprint should also consider addressing aviation delay problems by using other modes of transportation, such as high-speed rail,” the GAO said in a report requested by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking minority member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

McCain, the former committee chairman, asked the GAO more than a year ago to examine the aviation community’s efforts to reduce delays. The study focused on what initiatives are planned or under way by the federal government, airlines and airports to address flight delays; what effect these initiatives are likely to have on reducing delays; and what other options are available to address delay problems.

The GAO said the federal government, airlines and airports have a diverse set of initiatives to tackle flight delays, including adding new runways, finding new ways to safely accommodate more aircraft in the skies and doing more to coordinate efforts to adjust to spring and summer storms.

“Although most of these efforts were developed separately, the FAA has since incorporated many of them into the Operational Evolution Plan, which is designed to give more focus to these initiatives,” the GAO said. “The FAA acknowledged that the plan is not intended as a final solution to congestion and delay problems.”

Short-term Fix

The OEP, released last June, concentrates on projects that can be completed within 10 years and generally excludes any approaches that lack widespread support across stakeholder groups. The FAA acts as the plan’s coordinator, though the various stakeholders continue to retain responsibility for individual initiatives.

The GAO said the FAA has made “a good start” in implementing the plan and believes that the steps taken to date have had some effect in the delay reductions that occurred in the first half of last year.

In compiling the report, the GAO said it worked from October 2000 through the following October and had extensive consultation with various sectors of the aviation community, including airlines, airports, local governments, industry associations, employee organizations, federal regulatory agencies and aviation researchers. Obviously, much of its work and the release of the FAA’s OEP both occurred before September 11.

“The current initiatives, if successfully carried out, will add a substantial amount of capacity to the nation’s air transport system,” the GAO report said. “Even so, these efforts are unlikely to prevent delays from becoming worse unless reduced traffic levels following September 11 persist over the long term.”

One key reason, it said, is that a number of the most delay-prone airports have limited ability to increase their capacity, especially in the form of adding new runways, which is the main capacity-building element of the OEP. Those airports, the agency pointed out, will act as “choke points” for the entire National Airspace System (NAS).

Because of that, said the GAO, the system will have difficulty handling growth even if it is considerably less than what was forecast before September 11. If the growth should match earlier projections, the delay problem will become even more pronounced.

“The air-transport system has long-term needs that require attention beyond the initiatives currently under way,” the GAO said. “Other measures exist–some perhaps made more viable by the recent terrorist attacks.”

It said the first measure involves adding new capacity, not by adding runways to existing capacity-constrained airports, but rather by building entirely new airports or using other nearby airports that have available capacity. The GAO also suggested that the FAA should take a fresh look at the concept of “wayports,” which differ from conventional airports in that they are located further from large metropolitan areas and serve mainly as transfer points for long-distance air travel routes.

Although the FAA studied and rejected the wayport concept in 1990, dramatic changes have occurred since then. These include rapidly escalating costs for and increased local opposition to new runway construction at crowded hub airports, along with the rapid growth of regional airlines, regional jets, passenger enplanements and cargo and express mail.

The second measure involves ways to manage and distribute demand within the system’s existing capacity, such as limiting the number of takeoffs and landings during peak periods or limiting the ability of aircraft–other than those operated by airlines–to use especially crowded or sensitive airports. But the GAO acknowledged that under current law, all aircraft have equal access to even the largest airports.

The third measure involves developing other modes of intercity travel, including high-speed rail where metropolitan areas are relatively close together.

The GAO staff conceded, however, that these measures would require extensive change; may conflict with the interests of one or more of the key stakeholder groups; and, in many cases, would be costly.

“With the rising need to consider these three measures, either because of the increasing demand on the air transport system or because of the need to develop options that meet security and other concerns prompted by the terrorist attacks, the federal government will need to assume a central role,” said the GAO, which added that the current hiatus in air traffic growth represents an opportunity for such planning to take place. “This role should include identifying the measures that are most appropriate for individual situations, framing the discussion and moving forward with the best solutions.”

The GAO, which provided a draft of the report to DOT for review and comment, claimed that both DOT and FAA officials “generally concurred” with the facts and provided some technical clarifications. But it said neither agency commented on the report.

New Airports Face ‘Barriers’

Briefly discussing delay-reducing measures not included in the FAA’s OEP, the GAO said that adding new airports in metropolitan areas with high traffic volume would face a number of “formidable barriers,” but developing wayports may not face the degree of opposition that building new airports would. Further, it said that creation of more regional airports at underused facilities located about 50 mi from congested airports could serve as smaller-scale wayports or as a network of regional airports to take passengers diverted from the large hub.

The GAO cited regional airports around Boston Logan Airport (BOS) as an example, as well as Mid-America Airport (BLV) near St. Louis, which it described as a potential regional airport for Lambert Field (STL). But Mid-America has largely been spurned by the airlines, despite the federal government’s expenditure of $216 million to develop it.

Also not included in the OEP, the GAO said, were administrative or regulatory methods of reducing delays. These include slot restrictions, adjusting airline schedules, using larger aircraft, more flexible gate access policies and diverting smaller GA and other aircraft to reliever airports, which should be particularly worrisome to business aviation.

“This measure would require many of the GA aircraft to shift from congested airports to nearby reliever airports, which are underused,” the GAO said. “Currently, smaller aircraft account for at least 25 percent of all air traffic at most of the congested airports in the nation.”

The GAO claimed that GA aircraft and air-taxi flights at La Guardia (LGA), Kennedy (JFK), Philadelphia (PHL) and BOS account for about 31, 34, 41 and 46 percent, respectively, of the total operations at each airport. It said that diverting smaller aircraft to reliever airports could free capacity for use by larger commercial air traffic.

According to the report, “congestion pricing” mechanisms implemented at BOS in 1988 and at JFK, LGA and Newark (EWR) in 1968 “produced sizable results.” The GAO said many GA aircraft abandoned BOS for secondary airports, and delays dropped. After a $25 fee was imposed for peak-hour use of runways at the three New York airports, GA aircraft use dropped 30 percent.

But the GAO acknowledged that the congestion pricing at BOS was found to be illegal by a federal district court because, among other things, it discriminated against smaller aircraft. “Adopting this kind of measure nationwide would likely require a change in the law,” the GAO said.