GA in New York: Let's Not Roll Over

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Now this one hardly adds up at all. Pixeling across the screen this afternoon comes a press release from AOPA noting that general aviation pilots are happy to help with congestion in the New York area. The comment was made by AOPA Prez Craig Fuller at a meeting in Queens to discuss changes to reduce congestion in the New York area.

Although I applaud the sentiment, I certainly don't buy the premise that enough GA airplanes are filing Newark, Kennedy or LaGuardia as destinations to make much of a dent in the overall traffic volume. I'll concede that I'm biased toward smaller aircraft—singles, light and medium twins and single-engine turboprops. When I was flying regularly in the New York area, there were plenty of them on the frequency in New York airspace, but rarely going into the three major airports. Maybe I was just tuning out the dozens of Gulfstreams and Citations on final to JFK.

In the early 1990s, I flew Part 135 charters in that area and some people were actually willing to pay nearly $1000 to be flown from Hartford to New York to catch an international flight. The peak-hour landing fee then was $125 and it appears that it still is. Off peak, it's $25, plus whatever the FBO nicks you for. The idea of congestion-based pricing is being touted as a new one, but I recall the Port Authority doing this 20 years ago.

This gets to the philosophical question of whether an airport authority should charge higher peak-hour landing fees as a means of reducing congestion. Call me a raving socialist, but I think airports can and should do this, within reason. (Unfortunately, reason and commonsense are rarely used in the same sentence these days.) It's one thing to make fees entirely exclusionary, quite another to use them to level volume to reduce delays for all.

I wouldn't hesitate to fly into any of the New York airports (or Miami) to pick up or drop off an airline passenger, but I wouldn't do it during peak hours. The airports just don't have the capacity for that because of the bizarre way the airlines schedule their flights. The peaks and valleys in traffic used to be gentle sine curves, now they're more like a profile view of the Rockies. At the pointy end of a peak, you're looking at being number 43 for takeoff.

Last year, I was on a flight from JFK to Tampa. The airplane blocked out on time, wobbled to the taxiway and two hours later, it took off. The time to taxi was only five minutes shorter than the entire flight. It was easy to see the problem. In the conga line on the opposite taxiway to the same runway, I counted about 25 airplanes. It went something like this: 737/Airbus/RJ/RJ/757/RJ/RJ/RJ/747/RJ…and so on.

The regional jet explosion is in fact causing some if not all of the congestion problem that GA is sometimes blamed for, at least on the ground. RJs carry more than Gulfstreams and Cessnas do, true, but there are also a hell of a lot more of them. The FAA and airport authorities have proposed landing fee structures that would reduce landing tariffs for airlines who are willing to use fewer but larger airplanes, thus maybe knocking every third RJ out of the conga line. Nice idea, but I'm not sure I see how it can work.

The flying public wants RJs because they provide speedy, efficient service to markets that heretofore had none. Furthermore, although passengers like to complain about waiting two hours in a departure queue—me included—they don't want to wait four hours for a connecting flight. (Me again, but I'm willing to negotiate.)

Fuller told the meeting that GA activity is down some 40 percent in the New York area and if that hasn't reduced what minor contributions GA makes to congestion, is the next step a new class of airspace that bans anything carrying fewer than 150 people? (Just kidding about that, but you get my drift.)

I guess I'm saying that we as the GA community shouldn't be too quick to take the blame for that which we did not cause. And yeah, I get the appearances thing.

Comments (7)

Paul, perhaps you're so well-informed that you skip right past where the general public (and, sadly, perhaps some aviation leaders) are at. You take it as a given that "congestion in the New York area" is a matter of "filing Newark, Kennedy or LaGuardia as destinations". In other words, that the runway is the bottleneck.

However, I think most people not steeped in aviation think the congestion problem is that the in-air routes are full, or too indirect, or that the air traffic controllers can't watch a single plane more. This is partly a pernicious result of aviation using the term "ATC delays" to refer to departure restrictions on commercial flights when the arrival airport doesn't have the runway capacity to land incoming flights. Of course it's a runway bottleneck delay, but ATC is the messenger and gets the blame.

For someone who believes this, an LSA puttering along to an uncontrolled field, or even a corporate jet flying IFR to Tetoboro, are taking up space in the air routes and occupying a controller's time, delaying that convenient RJ from getting out of Laguardia.

In that context, the appearances thing is huge. Fuller was right to position GA as eager to help, given that he can fall back through miles of fact-based defenses before GA really needs to contribute behaviour change.

Posted by: James DeLaHunt | September 25, 2009 12:02 PM    Report this comment

No, I didn't overlook that at all. Here's the exact quote from the AOPA press release: “If the FAA will aggressively pursue equipment certification and take full advantage of the technology by publishing precise GPS-based approaches that give more airports all-weather capability, then GA pilots would have alternatives to landing at the three main New York airports.” He was referring to LGA, JFK and EWR.

My point is this. We're already down 30 or 40 percent in the New York region. That airspace contains dozens of GA relievers: Westchester,Teterboro, Bridgeport, New Haven, Islip, Danbury, Farmingdale, Brookhaven, Linden and on and on. All handled by New York Approach. Those are specifically GA airports intended in part to be used instead of the main airports.

So now, to ease congestion, we're supposed to knock our operations back further? I'm just not buying that. Further, I don't know many pilots who use the main airports as alternatives to the others, in weather situations. I think that's done so rarely as to not represent a congestion factor.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | September 25, 2009 12:58 PM    Report this comment

"The flying public wants RJs because they provide speedy, efficient service to markets that heretofore had none."

No, the flying public wants frequency above all, and the airlines want any excuse they have to cut mainline service and replace it with regional feed because it's cheaper for them. How else do you explain seven RJ flights per day from JFK to BOS on American (none in an RJ larger than 44 seats), and no mainline service at all? Even better, both BOS and JFK are AA hubs. Quick trivia question: name another mainline hub pair anywhere in the domestic US system that has no mainline service.

Legitimate "regional" service out of JFK is pretty minimal, with most of that RJ traffic going places like DCA, RDU, YYZ, BOS, etc., all major cities that could easily justify (and accommodate) mainline aircraft at a slightly lower frequency. The airlines aren't interested in actually *solving* the congestion problem, only in blaming others for it.


Posted by: Chris Lawson | September 26, 2009 12:19 PM    Report this comment

Interesting point. But I gotta think that running two larger aircraft twice a day instead of seven RJs between the same city pairs has to be cheaper on a seat-mile basis. Maybe not. I don't have the numbers.

But if you lose the frequency, you lose some competitive edge, too. The more discussions like these I get into, the more I long for the days of the CAB.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | September 26, 2009 12:54 PM    Report this comment

It's not that the RJ is more expensive (it is), but it feeds more revenue generation to the big flights. The RJ's are a fairly cost efective way to compete for passengers on the connecting long flights. Which brings us to the same point that comes up in all the user-fee discussions : airlines reap what they sow, both in terms of congestion/delays and cost increases. GA is but an innocent bystander, and saved from ending up with the tab largely by continued AOPA efforts.

Posted by: Peter De Ceulaer | September 27, 2009 4:43 AM    Report this comment

I am based at a 'EWR satellite' airport. My IFR departures this summer had delays double what they were in the past. Two weeks in a row my IFR releases required sitting at the end of the runway 45 minutes and 47 minutes. Previous years the usual delay was 15-20 minutes.(no severe weather, no swap program, no ground stop, AND not a busy 'push' time at EWR.) When I queried departure about the 'nature of the delay' one controller had a 'canned speech' about the number of airplanes and airports in the sector. Having flown here for 27 years I am very familiar with the airports and airspace. The reality is that the corporate general aviation traffic is down in the neighborhood of 40 percent in the area with Teterbor reportedly down over 30 percent. Yet the delays have doubled. Sounds like fuzzy math to me, but the reality is that the airline traffic is not down in this area (per tracon). General aviation using the satellite airports is not at the same altitude and airway as the airliners, so we do NOT deserve the blame. The controllers can handle a limited number of aircraft on their screen at a time, and it is quite obvious the priority is given to the airliners.(if there is an internal 'push' to reduce delays @ EWR, just leave the general aviation planes waiting on the ground at the satellites??) Just for comparision, I had an IFR departure out of KHPN recently at the same time of day and was given an immediate release.

Posted by: Robert Grinch | September 28, 2009 5:50 AM    Report this comment

AIR traffic congestion in the New York area is NOT the fault or responsibility of GA to fix. JFK, EWR, and LGA are operating well over capacity, and everyone is trying to push the responsibility away from them. Once the airport is full, slots should simply be denied or congestion pricing should be put in place until it evens out. The fares have been artificially low for FAR too long in the name of competition while pressure increases on a system that is already attempting to operate past reasonable limits. Let the airlines figure out what it takes to recover their costs for doing business at full airports. This problem is not limited to New York.

Posted by: Marc Zorn | September 30, 2009 1:31 PM    Report this comment

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