Girding For Gridlock?

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Are the bad old days -- the time when ground delays, in-trail spacing and lengthy conga lines at airports throughout the U.S. were the norm -- coming back? Since September 2001, U.S. air traffic delays and congestion have been virtually nonexistent on a widespread basis. The ongoing economic doldrums, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and intermittent, security-related groundings of non-scheduled aircraft -- among other factors -- have all contributed to relatively few demand-related ATC delays being imposed on business aircraft operators over the past two and one-half years. Exceptions include special events for which special traffic management programs (STMPs) are issued and, of course, severe weather. However, if you believe all of the dire predictions from industry and government, the coming summer could see the return of "hurry up and wait" flight operations in the en route environment and at major hub facilities around the U.S. Put simply, the problem is that scheduled operations are projected to return to "normal," and the result could well be saturation of certain terminals and sectors at various times of day. And that's just 2004 -- the out-years are projected to be worse.

But government officials say they are on the case. At last week's FAA-sponsored 29th Annual Aviation Forecast Conference, both Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta and FAA Administrator Marion Blakey went to great lengths to describe the steps their agencies are taking to minimize delays. Secretary Mineta also said that a new era of government-industry cooperation is helping to prevent the chronic flight delays experienced during the summer of 2001 and earlier. "Aviation is on the cusp of a paradigm shift," Mineta said. "Because a strong economy depends on a vibrant aviation system, the future of our system depends on new solutions that keep America as the worldwide leader in aviation." Mineta and Blakey used last week's conference -- and a media event at the Herndon, Va., Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center (ATCSCC) -- to announce a new initiative dubbed "Growth without Gridlock."

Unfortunately, Blakey's speeches are long on optimism -- especially for economic growth, which she says both will drive and be driven by increased air travel -- and short on specifics. The good news is that one of the central reasons for airborne gridlock -- lack of adequate runways -- is being addressed. According to Blakey, "several" new runways were commissioned in the past year and six more "are scheduled to open in the next few years." The bad news is that there are more aircraft operated by scheduled air carriers than before. The big difference is in regional jets, whose performance is similar to business jets and which are used by the scheduled carriers to serve routes with frequencies not sustainable with larger, more-traditional Boeings and Airbuses.

So, thanks to the scheduled carriers, more aircraft are carrying fewer passengers and actually causing more airborne gridlock. The numbers are pretty basic: In 2001, there were 4,353 regional and traditional jets being operated by large carriers; 782 additional jets were in use by regional and commuter carriers, according to the FAA. We'll do the math for you: a total of 5,135 jets operating in scheduled service in 2001. Meanwhile, some of those larger, less fuel-efficient airliners were parked when the post-Sept. 11 downturn in airline travel took hold. At the same time, more and more regional jets were being placed into service. The result is that, in 2004, the FAA forecasts a total of 5,273 jets to be in scheduled service (4,125 for the large carriers; 1,598 for the regionals). That's an increase of roughly 140 airframes -- or 2.6% more aircraft -- over 2001 levels even though total revenue passenger enplanements for the scheduled carriers is forecast to increase by only 0.48% in 2004 when compared with 2001 (683.4 million in 2001 versus 686.7 million in 2004, according to the FAA). And that counts only domestic carriers, not those based overseas and serving the U.S.

The FAA's worry -- one that should be yours, also -- is that projected travel growth in subsequent years will outstrip the system's ability to handle it all. The FAA’s new capacity study compares demand and projected capacity at more than 300 commercial airports and nearly 300 metropolitan areas through 2013 and 2020. The study shows that five airports -- Atlanta, Newark, LaGuardia, Chicago O’Hare and Philadelphia -- need additional capacity today. Even with planned infrastructure improvements, a total of 16 airports and seven major metropolitan areas will need additional capacity in 2013, unless further steps are taken to meet the demand. Final results of the FAA study will be released in the next few months. You can bet that the FAA will first place restrictions on non-scheduled operators in the form of STMPs before placing real-time delays on scheduled operations. Of course, none of this considers the impact that temporary flight restrictions may have -- remember, it's an election year and that means even more presidential travel.

What does all this mean to the non-scheduled jet operator? Well, as noted above, Mineta and Blakey were long on numbers but short on specifics. Despite the media-based preparation for increasing delays in 2004, operators can probably expect more of the same things they saw in 1999, 2000 and 2001: ground-based delays, STMPs -- especially when operating to or from popular destinations near major terminals -- and in-trail restrictions once airborne. Try to avoid punching in to any major terminal at 5:00 p.m. local time. And carry plenty of fuel. How well operators cope will be based on how much information they have. Tools and clues include a thorough pre-flight briefing, a visit to the ATCSCC Web site for data on existing delay programs and (shameless plug follows) spending some time with AVweb's Flight Explorer. At the end of they day, though, nothing will alleviate congestion quicker and faster than building more runways. The FAA says it's on the case. We'll see.