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?

Doug Berman

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

Jon D

A classic case of Braess Paradox!


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.


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?

Chet Anderson

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


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.


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.

Ken Steel

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!


The real problem with NYC is that it's landlocked. Closing LaGuardia would require both JFK and Newark to expand some in order to handle more flights. Both JFK and Newark are unable to handle the amount of flights that go in and out of LaGuardia on a daily basis split between the two. If there was a way to add a runway at Newark and two at JFK, it could be possible to close down LaGuardia. In my opinion, you could keep all three open if the runways could be reconfigured at all three or so. Again, all the airports are land locked so that is very difficult. Out west in the LA Basin, almost all major airports have the same runway configurations which allows for the same type traffic flows so none are crisscrossing like at NYC Airports. One last place they could try and increase traffic is at Stewart/Newburgh. Of course, I hear it's a pain to get to also. If there was some kind of high speed rail maybe that could work to as a partial replacement to LaGuardia?



Reduced supply leads to higher prices. But at least the airlines would run on time.


Where will all of LGA's passengers go? To additional planes in and out of JFK or Newark. Will it really make that much of a difference?

I also find LGA far superior to JFA and Newark simply in terms of size and complexity. People are forever complaining that they can't figure out what terminal to go to at JFK, and how far away from the terminals they have to park, and how there's no convenient place to pick people up. LGA, by contrast, is small and simple to navigate, parking is usually less than 100 feet from the terminal, and picking up passengers and escaping back onto the GCP is a breeze.

Also, where else would pilots get to show off their ability to slam-dunk a 737 onto a midget runway from an over-water approach?


How much of NYC air traffic is for flights along the eastern seaboard cities that could also be serviced by high-speed rail?

Build a few fast trains and people might realize that downtown to downtown travel is really quite great. If Dubner thinks the drive out to Queens is convenient, imagine leaving from just blocks away from your office in Manhattan. With security, flight delays, early boarding, travel to and from airports, etc., flying often doesn't have nearly the time advantage people think. (they tend to think 1 hour flight vs. 3 hour ride and forget about the hour spent driving to and from the airport on both ends, the 30 minutes in security, the 30 minutes sitting on the plane on the tarmac, etc.)

Save the skies for the longer cross-continental and transatlantic flights only. In short, when possible, create a substitute good.

Mike B

Why can't airlines just be forced to include 30 to 60 minutes of FAA mandated padding time to their scheduled. This would A) be truth in advertising, B) prevent delays from cascading as Airlines would be forced to deal with the delay problem in advance and C) would provide a competitive advantage for flights into and out of JFK and EWK to shift flights and traffic to those airports.

Gustavo Gomez

You say "and, since LaGuardia handles far less traffic than the other two airports, it is the obvious choice for shuttering" but by flight I believe that LaGuardia has been busier in the past with more flights than JFK (maybe in 2006 or 2007). If you are talking passengers, then LaGuardia has less traffic. Can JFK and Newark handle all the additional traffic on the ground?


I live on the upper-east side and try to fly out of LaGuardia whenever possible because of the quick and cheap cab ride to get there. That said, if it meant fewer delays I'd definitely vote for shutting the airport down altogether, even though I'd spend more time and money getting to JFK. At least those are variables I have some control over - there's nothing more frustrating than being trapped in a plane on a tarmac for an hour just waiting to take off. I'll pay the extra $30 in cab fare all day long...


If only shutting down LGA would make the trains run on time, then you could take them right into Manhattan.

thomas meixner

And while you are at it, shut down the National security disaster waiting to hap Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.


I was under the impression that the TCA is essentially conical, increasing in diameter with altitude... not so?

I suppose you'd get the same effect with a stack of concentric cylinders, each upper one larger than the ones beneath it. But it seems more natural to think of it as a cone with its narrow part at the ground.


I think the problem with eliminating LGA is that it serves as a puddle-jumper type airport, especially for the commuter shuttles; it'd be a much bigger deal for all the Delta DC/Boston business-people to get out to JFK; even as a South Brooklynite, my husband prefers the ground commute to LGA over JFK.


My experience waiting in a long line of planes for the limited runway space at JFK tells me that this pilot doesn't have all of his facts sorted out on this solution...With that said, there are many good reasons to shut La Guardia...