Authors: GA to blame for airport congestion

 - August 29, 2008, 10:51 AM

“Business jets pose a serious problem for the future of the aviation system,” writes George Donohue in Terminal Chaos: Why U.S. Air Travel is Broken and How to Fix It. “They carry far fewer passengers per plane and thus are inefficient in their use of the airspace, where the number of aircraft hulls [is] the best measure of how crowded the airspace is. They also subtract from the legacy airlines passengers who are most needed to make the airlines profitable,” write Donohue and co-author Russell Shaver. The pair kicked off a book and lecture tour on July 29 at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., sponsored by their publisher, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Donohue was previously an FAA associate administrator for research and acquisitions, and now runs the center for air transportation systems research at George Mason University. Shaver is a former analyst at think tank Rand.

The co-authors plotted a series of mathematical and graphical studies to support their proposals for Congressional action to clear the congested ATC system, and to separate safety oversight from operations.

“Today, general aviation aircraft pay only a fraction of the air traffic management operating costs,” added Donohue. “Most government studies estimate that the economic cross-subsidies from the commercial air carrier airlines to the GA aircraft operator are in the billions of dollars annually. Not surprisingly, GA likes it that way.”
Donohue argued that congestion at the airline hubs drives the most lucrative passengers–those who would buy first class or business class tickets–to business jets and to the emerging VLJ air-taxi market, and predicts that by 2010, GA aircraft controlled by ATC could outnumber airliners aloft. At that point, GA manufacturers will “become the scapegoat for congestion and major user fees will [or at least should] be imposed,” he predicts.

“Why ATC is considered an essential government service in the U.S. is a mystery,” said Donohue, who argued that a “corporatized fee for service” approach in the upper airspace would more quickly modernize the ATC system. His key proposal requires fundamental change in the method for rationing landing and takeoff slots during periods of peak demand.

“We’d have 23 percent fewer passenger delays tomorrow if the FAA rations by passengers, rather than the current system of rationing by schedule,” he maintains. Donohue said that airlines deliberately overschedule flights to increase their chance of winning a coveted slot, and proposes instead to ration airport capacity by the size of the aircraft. In the case of a conflict among comparable-sized aircraft, the flight with higher load factor lands the slot.

Regulatory Changes Needed

Donohue proposes that FAA and legislative rules change, and possibly that airliners enjoy a transitional package via taxpayers, to move to aircraft that are twice as large or at least the largest that the particular city pair supports, therefore taking only half the slots. On paper, this step could yield the same passenger demand and–in an ideal world–the same airfare, given the lower costs per seat mile. He acknowledged, however, that the recent auctions for slots at hub airports face opposition. His analysis did not tackle the additional boarding times of large aircraft, cost of new equipment and maintenance or the potential for environmental groups to challenge the noise of the larger airplanes.

Donohue has not yet defined the best “equity metric” to crunch the various factors in awarding slots. He contends, however, that at least mathematically, Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters is taking the wrong approach to slots by swelling hubs to their maximum safe capacity. To allow for weather and unknown delays, “You should withhold 20 percent from max capacity,” said Donohue, who argues that the “economic optimum slot allocation” is 80 to 90 percent.

Nonetheless, Donohue said that there are interim opportunities to regulate for an efficient market. For example, all three of the New York-area airports overlap on 30 percent of the city pairs they serve.

Donohue and Shaver concluded that the 20 largest hubs cause nearly all nationwide delays, and that “schedule padding” in published schedules is partially masking delays, for now. But the FAA is using ground delay programs (GDP) more frequently, leaving airlines to push from the gate and then sit idle rather than add to congestion, or cause more financial pain by burning jet-A in a holding pattern.

“Ground delay programs are frequently ascribed to weather,” said Donohue, “but with a systemic increase there’s now an 87-percent chance that at least one GDP will happen on any given day. And the weather is just not that bad.”