Want to Fix New York Air Congestion? Shut Down LaGuardia


So the Department of Transportation has canceled its plan to auction off landing and takeoff slots at New York City’s three airports. The idea was to use market forces to ease congestion; but in the face of industry backlash (and legal threats), new Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called it off.

“We’re still serious about tackling aviation congestion in the New York region,” LaHood says. “I’ll be talking with airline, airport, and consumer stakeholders, as well as elected officials, over the summer about the best ways to move forward.”

The three major airports serving New York — J.F.K., Newark-Liberty, and LaGuardia — are famously high-ranked when it comes to congestion and delays. And since so many flights elsewhere connect through New York, their delays affect air traffic everywhere.

During a recent ground delay at LaGuardia, I got to talking with an off-duty pilot for a major airline who was extraordinarily knowledgeable about every single airline question I could think to ask him. (With any luck, he’ll soon be joining us here as a guest blogger.) When I asked for his take on New York air congestion, he said the solution was easy: shut down LaGuardia.

The problem, as he explained it, is that the airspace for each of the three airports extends cylindrically into the sky above its ground position. Because of their relative proximity, the three airspace cylinders affect one another significantly, which creates congestion not just because of volume but because pilots have to thread the needle and fly needlessly intricate approach routes in order to comply.

If the LaGuardia cylinder were eliminated, he said, Newark and J.F.K. would both operate much more freely — and, since LaGuardia handles far less traffic than the other two airports, it is the obvious choice for shuttering.

But there’s a problem: LaGuardia is the favored airport of the people with the most political power in New York, since it is a very short ride from Manhattan. So it’s unlikely to happen, at least anytime soon. But if it did, my new pilot friend insisted, New York air travel would move from nightmare to dream.

I have to admit that LaGuardia is my favorite airport, since I live in Manhattan and can usually get there in about 15 minutes. On every other dimension, meanwhile, it is less pleasant and comfortable than either Newark or J.F.K.

That said, if eliminating LaGuardia had the cascading effect of streamlining all New York air traffic, I would personally help start knocking it down. Let’s say that I, and every other New York traveler, spends an average of 30 wasted minutes on every inbound and outbound flight in any of the three airports. (That’s probably being generous.) That’s a one-hour delay for each round trip. If I had to go to Newark or J.F.K. for every flight, I’d spend a little bit less than an extra hour on a round-trip ground commute to the airport — so with no delays, I’d at least be breaking even. Everyone who lived closer to either airport would obviously do even better. And then we’d get to start adding up all the time and productivity regained around the country by eliminating the inevitable New York airport delays.

Is anyone else in favor of exploring a shut-down of our beloved, troublemaking LaGuardia?

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  1. Doug Berman says:

    I think you’d have all 14 of the city’s Mets fans with you on this one.

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  2. Jon D says:

    A classic case of Braess Paradox!

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  3. Laura says:

    If there were better train access to JFK and Newark, I would be all for it. Even though your time would essentially break even, you’d be spending a lot more on cab rides going to JFK or Newark than to LaGuardia.

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  4. Arvin says:

    But don’t you then have to brace for the extra travelers who now have one less airport to choose from? Are the other two airports big enough to handle that extra load without further delay?

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  5. Chet Anderson says:

    Wouldn’t fares go up? And what about delays at JFK and Newark due to increased activity there?

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  6. Akshay says:

    This assumes that the impact of all the extra flers on the roads to JFK or EWR wouldn’t create traffic snarls… with all those people on the road, I wouldn’t think the extra time to travel to the airports would be 30 minutes.

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  7. EuroPleasure says:

    A classic example of freakonomics.There is no real added benefit. I use JFK and LGA for international and the US trips, respectively. Shutting down LGA would reduce not only the # of choices of the airports but ALSO the # of flights and airlines.

    Good for a newspaper column, but not worth the trouble. This will not fly.

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  8. Ken Steel says:

    The congestion at all three NY airports has been examined and solutions debated for YEARS! When is the Port Authority of NY and NJ going to bite the bullet and just build a new and massive airport off-shore, consolidate the operations and shut down JFK/LGA/EWR? Other cities around the world have done this. The engineering exists and it would create jobs!

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