WASHINGTON -- The Transportation Department, as part of an effort to free up the choked airspace around New York, has rolled out a package of initiatives that include capping flights out of Kennedy Airport and establishing a "czar" to help manage commercial flight activity in the region.

The flight caps at Kennedy, the result of voluntary cutbacks negotiated by the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration, will limit the airport to 82 or 83 takeoffs and landings per hour, depending on the time of day.

The caps are slated to take effect March 15, by which time the DOT hopes to negotiate a similar cap at nearby Newark Airport, to prevent airlines from merely shifting flights from one airport to the other.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters explained during a teleconference with the news media, "Under terms of the hourly cap, airlines will be able shift their flights to times of the day when airports have unused capacity."

Peters said that capping flights and shifting flight times would allow for "even more flights than were offered in the summer of 2006 and 2007 because they will be spaced out much more reasonably." That, in turn, could create new slots at Kennedy.

The agreement comes two months after President Bush directed top aviation officials to "take action" to ease the nation's growing air-traffic congestion problem, caused in part by the overscheduling of flights by airlines. At the time, Peters warned she was prepared to issue "a scheduling reduction order" to bring flight schedules in line.

In addition to the voluntary caps, Peters disclosed plans for the FAA, the airlines and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to implement various new operational procedures that would enable Kennedy to handle more than 82 or 83 operations per hour.

Leasing slots

As this additional capacity comes online, she said, the new slots will be available for lease to the carrier that values them highest.

To further manage New York's air space, Peters authorized the establishment of a new government post to oversee flight operations in the area.

The appointed official would head a new entity called the New York Integration Office.

Peters emphasized that the voluntary caps were short-term measures to ease congestion and delays while government and industry officials undertake 77 capacity improvement initiatives at Kennedy, Newark, LaGuardia and Philadelphia.

"We have been working very closely with the airlines and the airports to identify measures that can be taken to make better use of runways and of taxiways," Peters said. "We have already completed seven of them, including new takeoff patterns for Newark and Philadelphia International Airport.

"These new takeoff patterns will allow aircraft to fan out after takeoff, leaving more options in their wake for the next aircraft to depart, therefore allowing us to stage these departures closer together." 

Mixed reviews

By allowing incumbent carriers at Kennedy to voluntarily reduce their schedules and thus retain their existing takeoff and landing slots, the DOT plan avoids some of the more controversial aspects of a congestion-pricing plan or slot auction, but it still came under fire from IATA because it would require airlines to lease new slots that become available.

"The White House and Department of Transportation are out of step with the global aviation community,"  Giovanni Bisignani, IATA's director general and CEO, said in a statement.

"This is a complex situation, and an eBay approach -- slot auctions -- will not solve the problem."

However, the Air Transport Association, representing the major U.S. carriers, lauded the plan as a workable compromise.

To contact reporter Michael Milligan, send e-mail to [email protected].

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