Thankfulness is great, but what is the NYT thinking?

The Thanksgiving-day lead editorial from the New York Times, mindful of the difficulties many of its readers may have had in traveling to join their loved ones, praised President Bush for his wise and timely efforts to provide "Congestion Relief":

President Bush’s announcement this week of measures to reduce air traffic congestion was welcome news, especially his decision to open military air lanes along the Eastern Seaboard to commercial planes from the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to the Sunday after. The administration deserves credit for not ignoring the mess...

Not to violate the spirit of Thanksgiving, but: are you kidding me???

First, military airspace is at best a minor factor in holiday air-traffic congestion. The worst air traffic congestion is around New York City. As mentioned earlier, there's not much military airspace there to begin with. Chapter-and-verse details after the jump. Anyone who has ever looked at an aviation chart knows this. (I know about it from flying small airplanes on the East Coast over the past ten years.)

Second, controllers already can open up the military airspace during peak holiday travel periods. See this blog by former controller Don Brown for more. To be clear about this: the new order gives controllers a power they already have and have used for years.

Third, the decision did nothing at all about the real problem: too many flights scheduled to take off or land at the same time from a limited number of runways.

So this decision has made, and will make, no difference in holiday travel congestion. Zero. This weekend's traffic will flow well, or poorly, depending on weather, and unanticipated screw-ups, and many other factors. But it will have nothing to do with this plan.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful not to have to wonder what kind of research went into a lead editorial like this.

Chart talk:
I don't have any standard FAA charts here suitable for scanning. But the FAA's handy "Special Use Airspace" site is a big help.What follows is detailed, but the details are necessary to show the inanity of thinking that the plan would do any good.

This first chart shows all the "Special Use" airspace that can be reserved for use over the East Coast. This includes military airspace, like over Ft. Drum in upstate New York. It includes "prohibited" areas, like the red circle over Camp David in western Maryland. If the map were big enough, you could see a tiny red prohibited circle over the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. The space shown here also includes a variety of "restricted" or "warning" areas, and even wildlife reserves. From the map you can guess where the Three Mile Island nuclear plant is, and West Point (a tiny dot), and the Aberdeen proving grounds.

Some of this special-use space applies only at certain altitudes, like below 5,000 feet or between 6,000 and 12,000. And at any given time, most of this space is not "active," so it reverts to normal status. But the first and main point is: even if every bit of airspace were in use, at all altitudes, it wouldn't affect the main routes into New York. (Check the charts for Las Vegas some time if you want to see what a lot of military airspace looks like.)
Chart 1:

The next charts shows areas active at a given time. Only a few of these areas are always active. The rest are switched on and off -- by published schedule, or as needed. The FAA site lets you look up to 24 hours in advance to see which sites are supposed to be active when. The site doesn't let you look backwards, so I can't show what was active during the Wednesday pre-Thanksgiving travel rush. But here is all the space scheduled to be active between 3am Thanksgiving morning EST and 3am the next day:
Chart 2:

So, on Thanksgiving Day there is essentially no special airspace active on Bos-Wash corridor anyway. Now it is conceivable that this map already reflects the President's decision -- by fiat he has turned all the special airspace off. Actually, given the FAA's methodical and tradition-bound approach, that is practically inconceivable. Still, let's imagine it's so. Let's look at how the airspace was during a busy recent travel day. Because I checked the FAA site just after the plan was announced last week, I happen to know what the airspace looked like last Friday afternoon on the East Coast, as shown in the third chart:
Chart 3:

Even then, before the presidential order, very little military airspace had any effect on New York area operations.

Forgive the detail, but reading this editorial in our leading paper is like seeing them say: We support the President's plan to divide the day into 25 hours, because we can use that extra hour to relax or catch up on chores.

Back to the high road:Happy Thanksgiving Day.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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