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Airport Delays: Who is to Blame?

Assigned seat 15B and squashed between two large men, you are tired, uncomfortable, and getting frustrated because weather is causing your vacation to be shortened. Why can’t the planes just fly around the weather and then to your destination? You watched the weather channel and noticed the only rain is a small area of storms one hundred miles south of the airport. The captain then announces air traffic control is anticipating 90 minutes before they will begin allowing departures. In harmony with the passengers around you let out a sigh of frustration.

What is causing this delay since you know there is only a small area of weather? You have watch television and are aware of the congestion and delays these days, but who is to blame?

You can’t blame air traffic delays on the airlines, passengers, or the government because all are part of this complex problem. Fortunately, their is a solution to the delays.

Due to the robust economy more people flying. To keep up with demand, the airlines have increased the number of flights. Thus causing our first reason for delays in the form of congestion at the airports. Second, the air traffic control system is antiquated and in need of new equipment and systems. Third, the number of runways built to accommodate more planes is not keeping up with increase in flights. Fourth, Political pressures from many organizations and citizens limit the use of the airspace surrounding our most congested airspace.

Prior to the attacks in 2001, the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA, where planning a solution to mitigate delays at the busiest airports. The demand due to the increased travelers was causing delays similar to what we are experiencing today. After the terrorist attacks, discussions where replaced by safety issues and concerns over the solvency of the airlines.

Things have come full circle. More people are flying and the the airports are reaching their capacity. Customers are also demanding more flights to more destinations throughout the United States and the World.

Similar to most passengers, I would like to have direct flights to my destination and a variety of times to choose from. Airlines have acquiesced to this demand by increasing the number of flights. Of course more flights leads to more congestion in the sky. To allow me to fly from a small city to a larger international destination, the airlines utilize a hub and spoke system. This affords the traveler to fly from the small city of Allentown, Pennsylvania to Paris, France. Since it is unprofitable to send a plane directly to France from Allentown, flights are schedule to much larger airports such as Newark, NJ where you can connect with a flight to Paris. Many smaller cities have been added to the Hub airports, again increasing the flights and congestion in our airspace.

You may look towards the sky and think there is much open space and many planes can fit in that space. Why would I have a problem flying into the hubs if the sky above me is clear blue without a plane in site?

Airplanes fly over predefined routes. Imagine these predefined routes as highways in the sky. Similar to a highway, a fixed number of planes can fit along these routes, thus limiting the number of planes arriving at the airport. Lets assume there are only four highways in the sky leading into the New York area. If a thunderstorm pops up along one of these highways in the sky, many of the airplanes must be placed on the other highways to allow them to arrive into the New York area, thus reducing the number of planes landing at the airport.

One solution to this problem is to install Global Positioning Systems or GPS. Since planes can fly anywhere in the airspace we can use the GPS to define a point anywhere in space. By doing this there is the potential for an unlimited number of routes along which the airplanes can fly thus reducing the number of delays since a new route can be flown which is not dependent upon a predefined highway in the sky.

But even if we could avoid the delays en-route using points defined in a GPS, we still must land on a runway when we arrive. Unfortunately, the number of runways being built is not keeping up with demand in most large cities. There is a specific number of airplanes that can land on a runway in an hour. Therefore, to increase the number of planes arriving more runways must be built.

Adding a runway seems simple, but is not without its own problems. Residence of the city which is served by the airport do not want more planes in the sky causing more noise, but they want to be able to fly directly to their destination when they are traveling by air. An example of a city successfully adding additional traffic to their airport while being friendly to the neighbors is St. Louis Lambert Field. Through land acquisitions planed over many years and airport planning they have been able to increase the traffic flow to St. Louis along with increasing the safety of the airport operations.

Although we know how to increase the efficiency of our airspace, and we know how to increase the efficiency of the the airports, delays will continue if we do not make governmental policy changes. To discover the weakest link in the chain of air traffic efficiency we need only to look in the mirror and blame ourselves. In the United States we live in a democratic republic which allows us to elect officials we think will be responsible in their actions and facilitate growth and expansion in this country. Unfortunately, the implementation of laws governing our air commerce do not seem logical until one looks at the motivation behind the language of the law.

Many political organizations and advocacy groups literally steer the direction of airplanes through legislation. Much of this legislation causes airplanes to take off and land in certain directions causing certain inefficiencies thus reducing the number of planes flying in the airs. There are organizations which fight to prevent expansion of the airport structure while opposing organizations argue with a loud voice opposing restrictions to the airspace. For example, there are organizations in the New York Metropolitan area that do not want airplanes flying over their towns while approaching the airports they serve, but these same citizens while using the air commerce system complain of the many delays they have caused by supporting these initiatives.

Fortunately, we have the technology to immediately implement a new air transport system which will be more efficient, safer, and environmentally friendly. We only need to look at ourselves and ask if we want access to a more efficient air transport system, or if we want to look elsewhere for our transportation needs. The question isn’t if we can design a new and better air transportation system. The question is if we can justify to ourselves a new system that might impact our lives, but increase the efficiency of air travel.

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