Further Thoughts on Shutting Down LaGuardia Airport

Our post last week about shutting down LaGuardia Airport in order to ease New York air congestion filled up the in-box more than usual. The feedback was diverse, with readers calling the idea everything from idiotic to obvious.

Patrick Smith, author of Ask the Pilot, wrote in with some helpful analysis:

The cause of air traffic congestion isn’t a lack of runways or dysfunctional airports, per se. It’s the airlines’ scheduling practices: there are more people flying than ever before, but they are doing so in smaller and smaller planes making more and more takeoffs and landings. If carriers were better at consolidating, and reducing their insane reliance on regional planes, LGA would run better — and so would JFK. But airlines aren’t interested in consolidating flights. They sell frequency, or the illusion thereof.

You can read more of Smith on this and related topics here, here, and here.

In related news, it was reported today that airline customer satisfaction is up for the first time in a long time. The primarily cause, not surprisingly, seems to be that business is down and therefore planes are less crowded. That eliminates all kinds of potential dissatisfaction: bumped passengers, delays, discomfort on board, etc.

Smith’s point about consolidation would in fact address many of these common complaints, since it is the crowding on regional and small jets — both on board and on the runways — that drives so many people so crazy.

A reader named Phillip Rodriguez also favors getting rid of a lot of the smaller planes, and the details behind his reasoning are so compelling that I thought it was worth publishing his e-mail here in toto. I hope you agree. As for his long-term solution — think Japan.

This is an interesting idea, closing LaGuardia, but it pulls me in a number of different directions.

I’ve been a fan of aviation since I was a small child. I worked in the airlines for more than 10 years and finally left the industry just over a year ago after working as the head operations coordinator in an operations center for a major air carrier which operates out of JFK, EWR [Newark], and LGA. Having worked with these flights from EWR, JFK, and LGA, I can tell you that LGA and EWR were the worst delay-prone flights to deal with from an operational standpoint. I must state though that when JFK gets bad, it gets bad on a much worse scale.

While I’m torn over the issue of LaGuardia, let me tell you a little bit from an operational standpoint that a lot of people don’t know about, and a possible solution to the problem.

When delays get really bad at EWR or LGA, airlines have an option to basically play “let’s make a deal” with Air Traffic Control (ATC). Here’s an example:

+ Delays at LGA result in the max number of arrivals and departures per hour being reduced to half of what can normally operate. All airlines are given new “wheels up” times — the time at which the aircraft can depart — so now they get a number in line to push back from the gate to take off. Let’s say the delay for all flights will now be around 2.5 hours, for all airlines.

+ Well, U.S. Airways has a large number of flights that day at LGA, so they decide O.K., we have six flights scheduled to BUF [Buffalo] and eight flights scheduled to ROC [Rochester]. We’ll cancel half of each. ATC then will recalculate the amount of minutes they’ve been able to save and give those minutes back to the U.S. Airways flights. ATC then tells U.S. Airways, O.K., now most of your flights have been reduced to a 1.5-hour delay vs. the previous 2.5 hours, while all the other airlines stay delayed at 2.5 hours. This is great for airlines like US, DL [Delta], and AA [American], which have large operations at LGA; however, airlines like JetBlue don’t have that many flights there. If they cancel a flight, they usually have no way to reprotect the customers aside from trying to bus them to JFK, as they have only a small number of flights to certain destinations. Airlines like AA and DL can upgauge a flight to a 767 to cover the two MD-88 flights they canceled. JetBlue cannot. Legacy airlines can reroute their customers to other hubs out of the way of delays and weather.

Herein lies one of the problems of LGA. Yes, it is a convenient airport. As an example, there are 7 flights today from LGA to ROC, 14 flights to BUF, 7 to BTV [Burlington], and more than 15 flights to PIT [Pittsburgh]. All of these operate with aircraft with 50 or fewer seats. The arrival and departure spaces they used can be used for any type of aircraft, with 50 seats or 175. Could the same amount of people be carried to these cities with larger aircraft using less slots? Yes. Will the airlines do this? No, because they feel that it’s not competitive.

Now, what about places like Charlottesville, Va.? Charlottesville is a small city that has on average three flights a day to LGA with a 35-seat aircraft. Does it make sense to fly a 737 once a day to LGA? No, it would most likely be a money-losing route.

So what’s the solution? We need to look back to airline pre-deregulation, where airlines offered flights with one or more stops along the way. Sound familiar? It should: that’s how Southwest Airlines still operates. That’s how it can serve cities like Boise with more than 10 737′s a day. Each one of those flights started off somewhere else, got to Boise, and continued onward to another destination.

While I don’t have all the solutions, what I will tell you is that LaGuardia is way under what it can handle in terms of passengers. There are two or three old TWA hangers where a new terminal could be built (between the U.S. Air terminal and the old main terminal). Or better yet, a temporary one which would allow demolishing the old main terminal so that something efficient and new could be constructed. LaGuardia was not designed to handle the traffic it sees today; however, we can continue to make use of it.

So now back to the topic. I’ve said something similar for years. Either close LaGuardia or place a restriction on all New York airports that they can not fly smaller regional aircraft into these cities where landing and takeoff “slots” are so precious. But let’s say that we close LGA and the two choices left are EWR or JFK. Most of your traffic will most likely go to JFK, with some going to EWR.

Here’s the problem. JFK is almost at capacity, hovering around the 50-million mark. Feasibly the airport should be able to handle up to around 65 million if all the airlines operated larger aircraft. Now if you take the 22 million or so passengers at LGA and push them all over to JFK: not pretty. Will some go to EWR?

Maybe, but here again, Continental, which has the largest operation there, will now need to operate larger aircraft to keep up with the demand. That airport is already above capacity. So now you have let’s say around 70 million people flying just through JFK; you need to expand the airport again, yet the airport has nowhere left to expand. The airport is surrounded by marsh and wetlands. It’s the same problem that Philadelphia is experiencing. What about EWR? It’s surrounded on all sides, with everything built up around it.

So what is the solution?

Short term: at this point, make the best with what we have until we can figure out what to do. Place a cap on all flights into all New York City airports — no airplane under 100 seats, period, no exceptions. Combine small cities together and make a multi-stop flight route if you want to serve smaller communities.

Long term: I think we have to think outside the box on this one. At this point, humans are taking over the planet and spreading out at an alarming rate. It may be best to actually remove all three airports in favor of one centrally located airport. Where would you put such an airport? Most likely the best solution is to take a page from the Japanese and build it in the middle of the water a la Kansai. There’s plenty of room for further expansion there, and no neighbors complaining about loud airplanes. We might even look to our expertise of previous man-made projects from years ago. Seattle has floating bridges: they’re essentially floating concrete pontoons; maybe tie a bunch of them together and anchor them down?

Like I said, it’s not a definitive solution, just some ideas.

Regardless of what we need to do, we need to do it soon.

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  1. Alistair says:

    Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, has a similar idea for an airport out in the estuary. His idea would put terminals onshore near Southend and Sheerness, and gates/runways in the middle of the Thames estuary, connected by shuttle tunnels. The equivalent in NYC would be putting the terminals in Bridgeport and Port Jefferson, and the gates and runways in the middle of Long Island Sound. (A lot of people think Boris is crazy for even thinking of this…)

    If we’re really short of runway space at LGA and JFK, maybe there would be scope to put a runway along the north coast of Riker’s Island to serve LGA (with a suitable causeway taxiway to connect it to the rest of the airport) and a similar one for JFK in the bay. Environmentalists might scream about the JFK runway, and securocrats about putting an airport runway next to a prison, but those are probably the most available locations.

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  2. frankenduf says:

    can’t we just get more pilots like that guy and land them on the Hudson?

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  3. Erik says:

    The short summary of this article seems to be along the lines of (passenger capacity) / (takeoff/landing capacity) should approximate the number of seats on each plane. Using 33 seat planes breaks that. Of course, so does using solely 747s because that would be woefully inefficient in the other direction.

    Our society has actually found a very flexible way of allocating resources for maximum efficiency. It’s called the free market, and we use dollars as the measure of efficiency. Sparse resources should be paid for, in this case takeoff/landing slots. That gives the carriers the flexibility to decide if three small planes from Charlottesville make more sense than one big one. It may, and people may be willing to pay for that. Right now the slots are common goods, and as every economist knows, common goods get overused. The answer is to stop making them common goods but placing a price on them.

    Oh, and those funds could be used to build a new airport if there is *truly* enough demand for one. Let’s let the markets decide rather than having government regulators decide what size plane is big enough.

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  4. Mark Kennet says:

    Isn’t the real right answer to auction landing slots in an open bidding process? Even better would be to do it in real time, or at least for very limited ownership periods. That way, the slots would go to those companies that valued them most, with an almost sure outcome of only those airlines with sufficient revenue from large numbers of passengers holding on to their slots. Strategic blocking might occur, but this is probably unsustainable over the longer run as airlines are a fairly low margin business to begin with, and any protracted blocking effort that required paying out money would likely lead to losses.

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  5. Avi Rappoport says:

    Finally, a case where legacy airlines have an advantage:

    “U.S. Airways has a large number of flights that day at LGA, so they decide O.K., we have six flights scheduled to BUF [Buffalo] and eight flights scheduled to ROC [Rochester]. We’ll cancel half of each”

    “Legacy airlines can reroute their customers to other hubs out of the way of delays and weather.”

    That’s slightly reassuring!

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  6. Ignacio says:

    I agree with Mark. Auctioning the landing slots will create the incentive to rationalize their use.

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  7. Frank Martin says:

    Being someone who likes driving I don’t fly a lot but when I do it’s usually a frustrating experience. I recently had a trip to/from EWR and while the airline employees were great and the airport was nice I watched many flights that ended up overbooked and airlines offering incentives to give up seats. when it was time for my flight the incentive was up to $500 and if I hadn’t been so eager to get home it would have been tempting. Granted I am not in the flight industry but every flight I’ve been on in the past year or so has been like this so I’m not sure where there half empty flights are.

    It also makes me wonder if EWR could handle more flights coming in if LGA were to shut down? Honestly I’m just a consumer so I don’t have the answers but it’s nice to know others are looking for them. I expect someone to be looking for them since I am paying more and more each time I fly. It would be great to at least know those increases are going to pay for soloutions that will benefit me and not just the CEO’s bonus!

    A central airport in the water? Sounds crazy but sometimes the only answers are outside the box. I’d bet the first man who suggested landing planes on ships during wartime got some strange looks as well. I noticed Mr. Rodriguez mentioned he recently left the industry. Thats ashame because it’s innovative thinkers like him that will come up with the answers.

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  8. Erick G says:

    Erik-

    The market for passenger air transportation is not free, nor would it be without regulation. Between congestion, potential accidents, environmental damage and public nuisance, there are too many external costs for an unregulated market to perform efficiently.

    I don’t advocate minimum plane sizes, but congestion-based landing and take-off fees would encourage airlines to use larger planes and improve service. As to building new airports, unless you’re advocating for one in your own backyard, you can see why it’s not as simple as having enough funds or demand.

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