Outside editorial: Right start on air congestion

Posted: Wednesday, December 26, 2007

"They know that Santa's on his way, he's loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh, and ev'ry mother's child is gonna spy, to see if reindeer really know how to fly ... "

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If they flew through the New York metropolitan area, Santa and his reindeer probably spent a good bit of time circling in the clogged skies around John F. Kennedy International Airport. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced measures on Wednesday to alleviate the congestion there. Pity they won't take effect until late winter.

Starting March 15, the number of arrivals and departures at JFK will be capped at 82 or 83 flights per hour. The Transportation Department says this action will not only cut down on the congestion plaguing the region but will also have the effect of adding 50 flights to the schedule as airlines spread arrivals and departures throughout the day. Similar caps are being negotiated with Newark Liberty International Airport. Flights at LaGuardia Airport are already limited to 81 an hour.

In addition, Peters announced a host of facility improvements that are being accelerated, including a ground satellite system that will let the control tower know the precise location of planes on the tarmac, starting with JFK next year, then Newark (in 2009) and LaGuardia (2010). Another potential congestion-busting improvement being accelerated is the design of better approach routes for jets with onboard satellite positioning systems. These will be operational at JFK, Newark and LaGuardia within 12 months. Once the systems are in place, planes will be able to fly more closely to each other and land more quickly because pilots will know with more accuracy how far apart they are. But the route design is being challenged in court.

A plan to auction the right to fly in and out of JFK once capacity has been increased is being discussed. Such valuable slots shouldn't just be given away. What's not being discussed, however, is a congestion-pricing plan that would force airlines to pay higher landing fees at peak travel times. That's unfortunate, because the money raised from such a system could help finance a nationwide satellite system that could bring sanity to the skies. Until all of these things happen, air travelers will have to endure the pain to which they've grown accustomed.

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