Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Playin’ the Slots

Politicians sure like to make things complicated. I think we’re supposed to believe the issues are complex. I get the feeling it’s more like a game of three-card-monte though. See if you can follow along.

First up, we have today’s story from Matthew Wald at The New York Times.

For Now, U.S. Won’t Cap Flights Per Hour at J.F.K.

”WASHINGTON — The United States transportation secretary will announce on Wednesday that her department has negotiated an agreement with the airlines to ease congestion at Kennedy International Airport next summer by shifting some flights to less busy times, according to government officials and industry executives.

As a result, the department will not, at least for now, order a reduction in the number of flights per hour at Kennedy, they said. “

Is anybody surprised ? Please tell me you aren’t. Summer is over folks. Crisis over. It’s back to business as usual. Read the story and soak up all the subtleties. They’ll do something like the “express lanes” for Christmas and they’ll study it some more (and delay and delay some more.) Check out Senator Schumer’s statement and see if you can figure out why it looks like he’s playing a game of Twister.

Now, lets review and see how we got here. I feel like I’ve put at least a dozen history lessons up about landing slots. Let’s see. There’s one here, here, here and here.

Here’s another one from a few years after the FAA’s history book was published.


FAIR-21, which also authorizes programs of DOT’s Federal Aviation Administration for the next three years, directs that all slot restrictions be eliminated on July 1, 2002 at O’Hare, and Jan. 1, 2007 at the two New York airports.“

Speaking of should read the whole thing. But I’m going to move on. Did you notice the date for the New York airports -- Jan. 1, 2007 ? Do you remember which year delays spun out of control ? But what about Chicago O’Hare ? The restrictions there were eliminated in 2002. Let’s see how that worked out.

”April 22, 2004

U.S. Orders Further Cuts in Air Traffic at O'Hare

Despite an order by the Federal Aviation Administration to reduce traffic at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, delays became worse there in March. As a result, the agency will order deeper cuts, the transportation secretary announced on Wednesday.

The F.A.A. expects a return of air traffic to levels before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and is trying to avoid a return to the kind of congestion that produced. In January, it said it had won agreement from the two biggest carriers at O'Hare, United Airlines and American Airlines, to reduce flights 5 percent from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. But on Wednesday, the transportation secretary, Norman Y. Mineta, said the two airlines would cut flights by 2.5 percent more during that period and reduce flights from noon to 1 p.m. as well. “

I included the blurb about the attacks on 9/11 to remind those not in aviation that air traffic dropped off dramatically in their aftermath. Always keep that in mind as you’re reading any statistics about air traffic. Everything was reaching saturation in the year 2000-2001. In that regard, the air traffic system got a real break -- some breathing room -- a chance to rebuild. And the Bush Administration -- in the form of Marion Blakey and the FAA -- squandered it. You can cut them some slack if you choose to, in that you may think they were preoccupied. They weren’t.

Retirement of Air Controllers Poses Problem, Official Says
Published: March 18, 2004

Towards the bottom of that story you’ll also see this:

”John S. Carr, president of the union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said on Wednesday that another problem was that the aviation agency had delayed or eliminated several new technologies meant to improve capacity.

Ms. Blakey said a possible solution was to allow controllers to work beyond 56. But Mr. Carr said that this was not a good idea because the stress of working in busy air traffic jobs ''fries you like a fritter.''”

You’ll notice that my buddy John Carr (of The Main Bang fame) had a way with words even back then. And if his words occasionally sound a little shrill, think about what he knows now. When the FAA got a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get ahead of the power curve and get the ATC system staffed...they instead were plotting the demise of the ATC system.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Congress and the FAA are still playing with the slots. Runways aren’t roads. There isn’t any “stop and go” traffic in the sky. There is only “go” -- even if you can only go in circles. If you “stop” you fall out of the sky and die. You just can’t wish real hard and expect a landing slot to appear. If you want more landing slots you have to pour some concrete. A lot of concrete.

When you hear the next airline spokesman complain that the FAA wants to “take us back to 1969” with slot restrictions, ask yourself a question: How many new runways have been opened in New York since 1969 ?

You may think these guys are playing games but they’re gambling with lives.

Don Brown
December 19, 2007

P.S. I’ve been somewhat overtaken by events. Mr. Wald has an updated story out now.

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