Monday, January 14, 2008

Airport Capacity -- DCA

Washington National (DCA) is a special airport. In case I’ve beat around the bush too much in the past, let me speak bluntly -- most of Congress flies out of DCA. While it might be fine to experiment with “free market” solutions at other airports -- at DCA -- the planes are expected to run on time.

For the most part, they do. This is due to DCA’s inclusion in the “high density rule” dating back to 1969. The other “high-density airports” were: New York’s Kennedy (JFK) and LaGuardia (LGA), New Jersey’s Newark (EWR) and Chicago’s O’Hare (ORD). Unlike these, nobody ever seriously tries to eliminate the “high density rule” at DCA. As a matter of fact, it’s quite the opposite.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) is probably just another entity you’ve never heard of. It runs the Washington National (DCA) and Washington Dulles (IAD) airports. It also has something to say when the FAA wants to change the number of slots at DCA.

The MWAA had some very interesting remarks that are contained in a Government Accountability Office Report entitled: “Reagan National Airport: Update on Capacity to Handle Additional Flights and Impact on Other Area Airports”. Below are select portions. I encourage those that have the time to read the entire report.

”We are of course aware of the value of airport capacity and the need to efficiently use it. We are also very much aware of the need to control airport congestion that diminishes efficiency and undermines the reliability of air transportation and does not serve the traveling public.“

”Reagan National enjoys one of the lowest average delay times of any large airport in the nation. Reliability of air service is a very valuable attribute of Reagan National and a great benefit to both the scheduled airlines and their passengers coming to and going from Washington.

The High Density Rule limits on scheduling, or slots, are a major factor in that reliability. National is essentially a single runway airport. More than 95 percent of its operations occur on one runway. “

In the past, you’ve seen me talk about the number of operations per hour, per runway. In a perfect world, I use the number of 60 operations per hour, per runway. That is the absolute best -- the physical limit -- of a commercial airport. As we all know, the world isn’t perfect. Keep this in mind as you read more remarks. One runway. Perfect conditions equals 60 operations per hour.

”The GAO report cites the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) report of 1995 which concluded that the airport could handle increased number of operations, from 60 (which had been the rule since 1969) to 67 an hour.“

”The 1995 report also assessed capacity using a "balanced" or blended capacity analysis. This is a blend of Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) and Visual Flight Rules (VFR) capacity. Clearly, that will yield a higher number than IFR alone. It will also lead to greater congestion, delays and unreliability when the airport is experiencing IFR conditions.“

I don’t know much about the MWAA but I can tell you this -- they have the Flick. That statement encapsulates the debate about airline schedules. The airlines want to schedule airplanes as if we have VFR weather (good weather) all the time. Actually, they’ll schedule beyond that at times. The FAA uses a benchmark (when it bothers to use one) that is between the IFR (“bad” weather) and VFR arrival rates. The MWAA wants DCA limited to the IFR acceptance rate.

”The High Density Rule is an IFR rule. Its limits were set to assure efficient operations in IFR conditions. We believe that the limits on National need to remain close to that number in order to avoid the congestion and assure the reliability, particularly in poor weather, that we have come to value so much. One need only look to the airports where the High Density Rule was in place and then lifted, i.e., LaGuardia and O'Hare Airports, for examples of where demand will quickly outstrip capacity and diminish dependability to the point that the government has had to reassert controls. “

Like I said, these guys have the Flick. I’ve noticed the pattern, they’ve noticed the pattern -- so why haven’t the airlines and the FAA noticed this pattern of deregulation followed by gridlock and re-regulation ? The answer is that they have (of course.) They just don’t want the public to notice it.

There is one last point I would like for you to notice. I want you to understand how small the number is -- how few airplanes per hour it takes to tip the scales -- between reliability and gridlock.

”I am going further and saying that the Airports Authority, based on our experience and knowledge of our facilities and operational realities, believes strongly that an increase of four air carrier aircraft operations per hour as the report implies cannot be accommodated at Reagan National without serious negative impacts on the airport facilities and passenger service levels.“

Four airplanes per hour at an airport that is, essentially, a one runway airport. That is the difference between being on time and being late. Add in another four per hour and you start talking about the kind of gridlock airports were suffering this summer. And I’d be willing to bet, many of the delays suffered at DCA were due to the fact that other airports -- airports where the FAA and local airport authorities refuse to acknowledge airport capacity constraints -- were gridlocked. In other words, flights at DCA were held on the ground because their destinations (such as JFK, ORD, LGA and EWR) were gridlocked.

Regulation -- in the form of hourly slot controls at airports -- works. Everybody in the aviation business knows it. We can have an honest debate about how to determine the number of slots at each airport but the fact that there needs to be regulated slots has been proven over and over again. Under pressure, the airlines will come to a “voluntary” agreement on limiting the number of airplanes they can schedule per hour. The reason they’ll agree to these “voluntary” restrictions is to avoid an involuntary agreement -- otherwise known as a regulation.

There are many details yet to be discussed about this issue and I intend to discuss them at a later time. For now, I want to leave you with this thought. The time to impose slot limitations at all commercial airports has come. There are many reasons to do so but there is one that trumps all others - -Safety. The current shortage of experienced air traffic controllers does not allow us to ignore reality any longer. We must limit the number of aircraft that are clogging up the ATC system, waiting for a departure or landing slot. It is a luxury we can no longer safely afford.

Don Brown
January 14, 2008

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