Study: New York worst major region for on-time departures

By Michael Fabey

A Travel Weekly analysis of airport departure times throughout the summer confirms what everyone has assumed all along: Airplanes taking off from New York-area airports are more likely to leave late than planes departing other major regions, and by a significant margin.

While New York-area airports improved their departure rates over the summer months, they still lagged behind the improvements made by other regions.

At Newark Liberty, for example, the percentage of flights departing within 15 minutes of schedule sank to 24.6% in June during the busy 9 p.m. to 9:59 p.m. time slot when many overnight international flights depart, according to Transportation Department statistics released as part of its monthly Air Travel Consumer report.

That was the worst rate for any time slot during the summer months among the six major airports analyzed by Travel Weekly.

Chicago O'Hare fared a little better, with 39.8%, the second-worst for that time slot, DOT data showed.

By August, Newark had improved in that time slot, to 48.2%. Chicago, meanwhile, had improved to 72.7%.

Records better on early flights

The one trend common to all airports was a reasonably high on-time departure rate for early morning flights. The on-time rate then began to dip lower throughout the day, bottoming out in the late-afternoon rush hour, then climbing back up for the last flights of the night.

For the most part, the deterioration in departure reliability at New York-area airports started sooner in the daily cycle, plunged deeper and lasted longer than airports in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Chicago.

There are some exceptions. In August, for example, the 67.8% rate for Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport was below LaGuardia's 71.4%.

But the analysis shows the New York-area airports deserve their reputation for delays. Through the busiest part of the day, 3 p.m. to 10 p.m., the percentage of delayed departures consistently hovered around half or less.

The airports have fared little better in the recent past when it comes to arrivals. From January to September 2007, only 57% of flights at Newark arrived on time, the worst in the nation.

LaGuardia and Kennedy ranked second and third worst, with on-time arrival rates of 58% and 59% respectively, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates all three airports.

The FAA acknowledges the problem.

"LaGuardia, JFK and Newark airports consistently rank as the nation's three most delayed airports," FAA Acting Administrator Robert Sturgell told Congress this year.

But a ripple effect spreads the pain throughout aviation, both domestic and international.

Last year, New York airports handled more than 104 million passengers, the Port Authority said. Since 75% of the nation's flight delays originate in the New York metropolitan area, the Port Authority concluded that their three airports accounted for a third of the nation's air travel delays.

The DOT and FAA plan to ease some of the congestion that exacerbate these delays by auctioning flight slots, a controversial idea that has sparked opposition by airlines, industry lobbyists and the Port Authority (see related story, this page).

While disagreeing with the FAA on slot auctions, the Port Authority, airlines and lobbyists generally support the FAA's overall plan to deploy a "Next Generation" air traffic control system based on GPS technology.

In the meantime, the FAA has imposed flight caps and restrictions on the New York-area airports to cut congestion and delays, but the on-time performance data suggests that it's not enough.

Despite such efforts, in August, between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. only a third of the flights left on time at Kennedy, fewer than half did so at Newark, while LaGuardia fared the best of the three, with a 56.2% on-time departure rate.    


DOT sets Jan. 12 for auction of New York airport slots

By Michael Fabey

Despite opposition from big names in Congress and in the industry, the Transportation Department is forging ahead with its controversial plan to auction takeoff and landing slots at the three New York airports, setting the auction date for Jan. 12.

DOT officials said they expected continued opposition, including lawsuits and stay requests, but hoped they could lay enough groundwork to carry out the auctions as planned.

Final rules for the auctions published last week will set aside 18 each at Kennedy and Newark Liberty and 22 or 23 at LaGuardia, the DOT said. The agency has yet to decide about the two slots it was going to auction as a test at Newark in September; that action was delayed by a protest from the airlines, which the FAA decided in its own favor.

The DOT's plan is designed as a long-term, market-based approach to easing congestion, by requiring carriers to relinquish a number of slots each year, which would be auctioned off.

The winners would have temporary leases on the lots, but because they would be paying cash for them, the theory is that they would use them in the most efficient manner possible, such as by operating with large aircraft to maximize passenger loads.

The money they pay to the government would be plowed back into capacity-enhancing improvements.

The plan calls for annual auctions of a total of 293 slots over the next five years. The agency says airlines would decide half of the slots they would relinquish for the sales.

"Without slot auctions, a small number of airlines will profit while travelers bear the brunt of higher fares, fewer choices and deteriorating service," Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said.

GAO opinion

In late September, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a legal opinion at the request of congressional leaders, saying the DOT lacked the legal authority to conduct the auctions. The GAO also said the sales amounted to new user fees, which would also be illegal.

"The GAO is an arm of the legislative branch," said DOT general counsel D.J. Gribbin. "It's not legally binding on the executive branch."

Gribbin noted that the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel has issued an opinion stating the opposite, that DOT had the legal right to hold the auction and the sales were not new user fees. 

Those opposing the DOT auction plan were swift to condemn the latest move.

"DOT has made it abundantly clear that it will ignore the nearly universal opposition to this slot confiscation plan by the international airline and airport community as well as the U.S. Congress," said IATA Director General Giovanni Bisignani.

Greg Principato, president of Airports Council International -- North America, said, "Despite conflicting legal opinions on whether the FAA has the authority to auction arrival and departure slots and unanimous opposition from the aviation industry, DOT continues to unlawfully usurp the proprietary right of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey."  

Port Authority Executive Director Chris Ward said, "While we want to work cooperatively with the DOT to address the problems of delays and congestion, this untested policy will do just the opposite."

The Port Authority has threatened to decline service to any auction winner. The DOT says such a move would be illegal.

Gribbin said the Port Authority has offered no alternative to its plan. "We are extremely disappointed with the Port Authority's reaction." 

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