The Case for Regulating Airport Runways

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by Don Brown

Five years and one Great Recession ago, the Atlanta airport opened its fifth runway.  Keep in mind that Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL) was already the busiest airport in the world.  An article in USA Today had this to say at the time (2006):

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the new runway, opening May 27, will increase by about 30% the number of arrivals the airport can handle at any time, reducing passengers' average waits as they taxi or circle in the air.

In the same article, we learn the new runway cost $1.1 billion, ATL ranked 20th in on-time performance and only 78% of its arrivals were on time.  Now, let's jump forward to June 2010 -- this time in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

More departure delays at the nation's major airports were attributed to Hartsfield-Jackson than to any other airport, according to a study completed last month by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Hartsfield-Jackson is the world's busiest airport.

Hartsfield-Jackson ranked 29th out of 31 major airports for on-time performance in 2009, ahead of only New York's LaGuardia Airport and Newark Liberty International. While overall airline on-time performance across the country improved, it declined in Atlanta. At Hartsfield-Jackson, 72.6 percent of flights arrived on time in 2009, down from 75.5 percent in 2008. That meant passengers had more than a 1 in 4 chance of being delayed.

At first glance, that may sound like it's disproving the point I'm trying to make -- that runways add capacity.  We've gone from 78% on time in 2006 to 75.5% in 2008 to 72.6% in 2009.  Yet we know for a fact that ATL has more capacity than it did in 2006.  ATL now has five runways instead of four -- but on-time performance is decreasing.  How can this be?  First, let me prove to you that ATL does indeed have more capacity.

I've spelled all this out before (this issue is nothing new) but let me just give you the quick links for proof.  Using the Way-Back Machine we can take a look at the FAA's own numbers.

ATL's Arrival Capacity with five runways: 126 arrivals per hour
ATL's Arrival Capacity with four runways: 96 arrivals per hour

For those that actually click on the links, don't let the FAA confuse you. VAPS means "visual approaches."  In other words, the weather is good and pilots fly to the airport visually instead of having to fly an approach on instruments.  The current version of the AAR (Airport Arrival Rate) page lists the same flying conditions as "VMC" -- Visual Meteorological Conditions.  I've only quoted the "best rate."  In other words, the maximum number of airplanes the airport can handle using the best runway configuration with the best weather.  If you want to study the charts you can see what happens when the weather gets "bad" (IMC/IFR) and/or they lose a runway. (Don't be surprised if that FAA link suddenly quits working.)

I hope the difference in those numbers leaps out at you. 126 - 96 = 30 arrivals an hour.  30 arrivals + 30 departures = 60 airplanes per hour per runway.  Just like I discussed earlier.

So, what's the deal?  Why are delays increasing despite added capacity?  One word:  scheduling.  This is the "big picture" point I want you to see.  They (the whole industry) promise airline passengers what they crave -- ...reducing passengers' average waits as they taxi or circle in the air... -- but they don't deliver.  As soon as we build any increased capacity, it gets overscheduled. And the delays only get worse.

I mention this because, in a way, I'm as bad as the rest of the industry.  I know that airline delays get your attention.  But what I'm really after -- my ulterior motive -- is safety.  Safety  always has been and it always will be my goal.  The motive isn't really "ulterior."  Check the bio at the bottom of this entry.  I was a safety rep for air traffic controllers.  Let me interpret that for you.  I not only told the FAA and the aviation industry when I thought they were doing something wrong, I let air traffic controllers know when I thought they were doing something wrong.  I was quite insufferable about it -- as only a true believer can be.

I'm telling you all this for one simple reason -- when you push anything to its limits, it tends to break.  Engines, people, and air traffic control systems.  If you redline an engine constantly, you're just asking for it to break.  If you redline the air traffic control system, you're asking for the same thing.  If we allow the airlines to schedule an airport at its maximum capacity -- constantly -- the airport gets overwhelmed when the slightest thing goes wrong—when a thunderstorm comes along; when it gets foggy or snows; when an aircraft has a flat tire and can't taxi off the runway. When these events happen, you (the airline passenger) want to know how long your delay will be. Air traffic controllers want to know where they're supposed to put all the airplanes already in the air, inbound to the airport.  In the holding patterns is the obvious (and correct) answer but I'm guessing most of you have never even thought about how that is done.  The phrase "mad scramble" comes to mind.  "Mad scramble" and "safety" don't really go together.

The answer to your problem (airline delays) and my problem (safety) is the same -- regulation.  We need to limit the number of aircraft that can be scheduled into our major airports.  Unless you believe it makes sense to allow airlines to schedule 70 airplanes an hour into a 60-airplane-per-hour airport.

As you can imagine, believing a government agency should regulate a ... well ... anything hasn't been a very popular opinion to hold for the last 30 years.  As you might have already guessed -- I don't care about popular.  I care about safety.  Safety is rarely popular.  Everybody is for it -- until you have to buckle your seat belt, wear a motorcycle helmet or...it's your town's flight to JFK the airlines want to eliminate.

Fortunately, I have some new ammunition to support my cause.  In October of 2010, the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation issued a report about New York flight delays. Here are some quotes that I focused on.

Due to significant space and operational constraints, Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark are severely limited in the number of flights that they can safely and efficiently accommodate (i.e., capacity). Although new technology and procedures can enhance airport capacity, new runways typically bring the greatest increase. Yet, the last new runway added at any of the New York major airports occurred at Newark in the early 1970s, and there are no plans to add any new ones."

Following the record delays of summer 2007, FAA reimposed hourly flight caps at Kennedy and Newark and maintained caps at LaGuardia in 2008. However, FAA's goals were to keep delays from getting worse and to reduce their severity, but not to reduce the number or rate of delays.

In effect, FAA set the new caps near the airports' maximum capacity in optimum weather conditions and then allowed air carriers' schedules to exceed those caps during certain time periods. (Emphasis added.)

To gain an international perspective on New York, we observed how flight caps are planned at London's three major airports (Gatwick, Heathrow, and Stansted). These airports together serve a greater number of passengers than the three major New York airports but experience a lower rate of flight delays. In London, airports, air carriers, and the air traffic control organization coordinate to reach consensus on the number of flights that can be accommodated (caps) without exceeding an acceptable delay target.

These snippets are just to tease you. I encourage you to read the report for yourself.  I dare you to check out "Figure 4. Comparison of Flight Schedules with Various Capacity Measures at Kennedy (June 18, 2008)". Come on. Click on it. I've been doing this a long time.  If you just take my word for it you can always tell yourself I'm shading the truth and only telling you the things I want you know.  Read it for yourself.

I want the non-aviation readers to understand that there are no "Eureka!" moments here.  The fact that the New York airports (and several others) are routinely overscheduled has been known for years.  The "High Density Rule" (to mitigate overscheduling) was first implemented in 1969.  We didn't need to look at London's airports to figure out what works.  We've known what works for decades.  It's simply that political interests decided making a little more money trumped passengers being subjected to occasionally horrendous delays.  And the extra safety that regulating landing slots provides.

Let me be clear about this, too. I'm not advocating a return to the days of the Civil Aeronautics Board -- when the government decided how much the airlines could charge passengers. I'm simply advocating that we limit the number of aircraft scheduled to use an airport to a manageable  number -- taking into account delays, typical weather, and safety.  

And for those that can't stop wondering about my "ulterior" motive?  You can't figure out what my angle in all this is?  Did you notice that my previous post didn't have a single link to my blog?  (I'll be honest, I didn't even think about it when I wrote it.)  I'm not trying to sell you anything. I'm not angling for a job somewhere. I don't want a job. The American public paid me a good salary to look after their interests.  In my mind at least, they still do.

Don Brown was an air traffic controller at Atlanta Center, the busiest air traffic control facility in the world, for 25 years. During that time he was also the Facility Safety Representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

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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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