Airport Congestion

An editorial in The New York Times at the end of August, 2007, lamented the deplorable state of air travel, particularly the delays caused by congestion at airports and in the air spaces around large cities.  They cited many contributing factors, including an antique air traffic control infrastructure designed in the 1960s, and noted that there was a long-term project already underway to upgrade that infrastructure to use modern satellite technology and a short-term plan to re-design the air routes in the Northeast corridor to improve the efficiency of the system we currently have.  But they also noted neither of those would really solve the immediate problem and, so, they recommended a more drastic regulatory fix: an FAA-imposed arbitrary reduction in the number of flights allowed in and out of the JFK and LaGuardia airports, similar to what had already been imposed at Chicago’s O’Hare airport.

As it happens, I had some direct experience with the result at O’Hare.  I travel frequently between the East and West Coasts and, at the time, had been making regular use of a certain red-eye flight between San Jose, CA and Chicago as part of my standard itinerary.  The flight was popular among business travelers — there was rarely an empty seat and the prices, though lower than those at peak times, were by no means a bargain — and, so, one might suppose it was also probably fairly profitable, if less profitable than the pricier peak-time flights.  And then, suddenly, that flight was not available and I had to switch to a flight that hit O’Hare during the peak-time for air traffic.  When I asked about the logic of cancelling the overnight flight, the explanation I received from the airline was both predictable and illuminating: they had been directed to reduce the number of flights they routed through O’Hare, and that was the flight they had chosen to eliminate.  In other words, having been directed to “reduce the number of flights in order to reduce congestion”, they had, logically, chosen to eliminate the flights that generated the least profit — which meant the flights that passed through O’Hare at the least congested times.

I wrote this letter to the Times to suggest an alternative method for managing congestion, one that was more likely to actually accomplish what they wanted.  In the end, they chose to print 7 letters in response to their editorial, touting “solutions” like high-speed rail, an end to airline deregulation, a wholesale reduction in flights generally (global warming, don’t you know), imposition of “High-Occupancy Aircraft” periods during which smaller planes would be prohibited from the tarmac, and the hiring of more air-traffic controllers (that from a representative of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association).  Neither my letter, nor any letter with a similar suggestion, was published.

3 September 2007

Your proposal for solving the problem of air traffic delays at peak load times — impose caps on the number of flights that airlines can schedule during those periods — amounts to fixing a problem of socialism by buttressing it with a new layer of paternalism.

The problem of overcrowding at peak load times is the result of a basic philosophical premise on the part the FAA: that takeoff and landing slots are a public resource properly allocated on the basis of “fairness” or “equity” or some other moral ideal — moderated, of course, by political suasion — and in defiance of any economic consequence. The predictable result is that the benefits of such allocation accrue to the winners in the allocation lottery while the costs are socialized across the whole system.

What if, instead, airlines were required to bid against each other for takeoff and landing (and gate) slots in a market, so both the benefits and the costs of peak-time usage would be borne by the same entity? Highly valued “peak time” slots would be expensive; off-hours slots would be cheap. Airlines would balance the benefits of being able to provide peak-time service against the cost of providing it; to the extent that costs are reflected in ticket prices passengers would make the same tradeoffs.

In both cases those tradeoffs would be made individually and idiosyncratically based on the needs of airlines and passengers rather than globally based on the political and philosophical preferences of system managers. And the resulting amount of congestion would be precisely what the market would bear.

© Copyright 2007, Augustus P. Lowell

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