The Solution is Slots (in 650 words or less)

The Department of Transportation recently announced its intention to auction off landing slots at Newark's airport -- effectively torpedoing a much-needed solution. That solution is effective, landing-slot restrictions at our nation’s commercial airports. While the industry props up a new scapegoat each week to explain its poor performance -- an answer to each and every problem presented is slot restrictions.

Antiquated and understaffed air traffic control ? Slot restrictions are a solution. Limiting the number of scheduled aircraft will buy us time to rebuild our air traffic control system. Airport gridlock caused by airline over scheduling ? Slots solve that problem too. In fact, over scheduling is the reason we’ve had slot controls in place since 1969 -- even if this Administration has ignored the need to enforce them. Airport noise caused by new flight paths trying (and failing) to cure airport congestion ? Yes, slot restrictions solve that too. Cure the airport congestion and you eliminate the stated rationale for redesigning the airspace over the New York area.

How about the dismal performance of the airline industry that is bleeding money -- even as it tries to nickel-and-dime its customers to death with charges for pillows, food and water ? Yes, appropriate slot restrictions will solve even that problem. If we limit the supply of landing slots at the nation’s busiest airports to a sustainable rate of air traffic -- sustainable even in typically poor weather -- the price of tickets will go up. Come now, you know there is no such thing as a free lunch. The airlines have to make money in order to survive. A competently managed slot restriction program will provide the market stability the airlines need to turn a profit -- for the long term.

The Bush Administration has slipped a “poison pill” into this sensible solution by turning a relatively simple, well-established regulatory function -- landing slot restrictions -- into an auction.

Who benefits ? Certainly not the citizens. The extra costs the airlines pay at auction will be passed along to the consumers. The debate over that question -- who gets the cash ? -- will delay any sensible regulatory solution until well after the Bush Administration is history. If their auction scheme survives the threatened lawsuits, they will have created a cash cow for some (unknown) entity -- be it the airport operator, the local government or even the U.S. DOT itself. In doing so, they will create an incentive to auction off more slots than the airport can handle.

In 1969, Congress passed the “High Density Rule”, implementing slot restrictions at New York’s Kennedy and LaGuardia airports, New Jersey’s Newark International, Chicago’s O’Hare and Washington DC’s National airport. Despite numerous attempts to revise and even kill it, the basic rule has remained in place. Take a critical look at that list. Atlanta -- the world’s busiest airport -- isn’t on it. Neither is Los Angeles (3rd busiest) or Dallas-Ft. Worth (4th busiest). It begs the question: Why is Washington National on the list ?

The answer lies in understanding that the clientele of National includes the United States Congress. To my knowledge, there has never been a serious proposal to eliminate the “High Density Rule” at Washington National. One effort to increase the number of slots was opposed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority with this testimony;

”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.“

“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. “

Slot controls can work. No auction needed. Just ask Congress.

Don Brown
August 17, 2008

P.S. 640 words to be exact.

The testimony given by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority

Busiest Airports in America

The U.S. Code defining the “High Density Rule”


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