Airline delays and congestion are at an all-time high throughout the nation's air transportation system and particularly in the New York area. While the system has faced significant delays and congestion problems on multiple occasions in the past, the situation has reached a critical point and continues to worsen. These problems impact not only travelers and communities throughout the country, but also airline competition, ticket prices and use of airports by all operators.
The United States Department of Transportation (DOT) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) understand the importance of addressing delays, congestion and competition problems. These agencies are developing both long and short-term solutions to alleviate congestion at the New York-area airports by the Spring of 2008. The DOT Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) was formed to make recommendations on these issues. Comprised of representatives from all interested parties, the ARC has spent months in discussions and will present its analysis in December 2008. However, most of the proposed solutions are contentious, and it is likely that the ARC's final analysis will include a variety of options rather than one specific solution.
On November 15, 2007, President George W. Bush and Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced steps to alleviate holiday delays by opening up military airspace during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday travel periods. This will increase the number of planes that can land at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and Newark International Airport, which will significantly alleviate delays this holiday season and keep the air travel system running at full capacity. Thanksgiving travel went smoothly (with weather cooperating) and it is hoped that Christmas will be similar. The DOT also announced a variety of proposals related to passenger rights and is seeking comments on these proposals, which include requiring airline contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays, penalties for chronically delayed flights that would be deemed unfair and deceptive practices, and required disclosure of on-time performance, customer complaints and other information.
Because flight delays are often the result of an excess number of departures scheduled for a particular time window, one of the solutions under consideration involves restricting the number of flight operations at JFK Airport, in much the way flights are limited at LaGuardia Airport, Chicago O'Hare International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Flight operations are restricted so only carriers that have been allocated an arrival or departure position at a particular time (commonly referred to as a "slot") may operate a flight. A carrier retains control over its slot(s) unless the usage of that slot falls below a certain usage percentage, in which case it must be returned to the government.
Unfortunately, history suggests that slot-controlled airports have less low-fare service and competition than most other airports in this country, because slots are so hard to come by, making entry and growth at the airport extremely difficult. Given the limited number of slots, carriers do everything they can to retain control of their slots and are reluctant to sell the slots because having as many as possible gives them a competitive advantage. These restricted entry opportunities mean low-fare carriers have great difficulty adding flights to their schedules and incumbent carriers are able to operate with much less competition, which results in fewer airline options and higher fares for travelers.
Given the many benefits that low-fare carriers bring to consumers and the industry, it is important that steps be taken to alleviate delays and congestion and to specifically address low-fare carrier growth. As Secretary Peters stated when she initiated the JFK Airline Scheduling meeting: "I am not in favor of a system that limits competition, nor do I want to reduce the ability of new entrants to fly into New York." Although the FAA has repeatedly stated that one of its primary objectives is to promote competition, carriers and consumers have waited more than 10 years for changes to be made to the restrictions on New York-area airports.