Wired Airspace: It’s all About NYC & Airlines

By Scott Spangler on March 5th, 2009

NY Mag Cover Maybe I haven’t had enough coffee this morning, but I’m not sure how to take an article in the current issue of Wired, “Air Repair: Key to Eliminating U.S. Flight Delays? Redesign the Sky Over New York City.” It reminds me of that 1976 cover of the New Yorker magazine, where the land west of the Hudson River really didn’t matter. There’s no denying that the city is an important place; it spawned the economic virus that now affects us all. But the cause of–and key to eliminating–U.S. airline delays?  

NYC_airspace The article’s opening graphic (left, with other below) clearly shows that NYC is busy. More than 2 million flights passing through its airspace each year, and many of the flight tracks connect to one of the three metro-area airports: Kennedy, Newark, and LaGuardia. What’s interesting is that the article focuses on departures, as if these millions of flight are born immaculately in NYC. It mentions arrivals twice, and without any specifics. (Hmm, if NYC is so important, why the emphasis on getting out of town?)

Right now you’re probably wondering about the other busy hubs like  Atlanta, O’Hare, and LAX. Doesn’t traffic and weather at any of them affect delays? The article never says. It does mention NextGEN, and rightly says that its time savings are a ways off because it requires some serious cash for avionics. 


In the meantime, to reduce airline delays nationwide, the FAA hired Mitre, an R&D firm that works exclusively for the government, to redesign NYC’s traffic flow. A pull quote describes it succinctly: “The redesign creates a kind of airborne suburbia, paving the skies far out into what used to be the countryside.” The text provides more chilling details: “Mitre’s proposal is to extend the boundaries of this airborne city into a 31,180-square-mile area that stretches from Philadelphia to Albany to Montauk.”

Many readers, especially those who fly in GA skies, are wondering what this redesign will do to them. The article doesn’t say. We can surely find a hint in what we now call B airspace. Speaking of which, the article offered an interesting bit of related trivia: Mitre, founded in 1958 as an offshoot of MIT’s Lincoln Labs, is responsible for the hub-and-spoke system that became, in the 1960s, the National Airspace System. “Since then, [Mitre] has helped design flight patterns above Los Angeles and Chicago.” And to further jangle my big-picture sensibilities, this sentence ended with “but neither of these skyscapes was nearly as daunting as New York’s.”

Southwest_Maryland_One_Boeing_737_700As we all know, the problem of airline delays isn’t that simple. Well, at its root cause, maybe it is. When more than one airplane wants to use the same runway at the same time, someone has to wait. When everyone is on the same schedule, a line forms when you have too many airplanes and too few runways.  Replacing a big plane with two little ones only makes it worse. We’ve known this for decades. And like other national infrastructure problems, we’ve ignored it out of self-interest, left it for the next guy to worry about, or hidden this elephant no one will acknowledge behind a redesigned curtain. 

If Mitre’s NYC airspace model works as predicted, in the article the FAA predicts that each plane leaving LaGuardia will save 9.7 minutes, and Kennedy arrivals will each save 1.3 minutes. Newark arrivals and departures will each save more than 7 minutes. (It didn’t say what happens to LaGuardia arrivals and JFK departures.) “These efficiencies should ripple out across the system, freeing up runways and air routes from Los Angeles to Denver and back to New York.”

Okay, if you say so. Locking up my inner cynical skeptic, I can see that this redesign might be a piece in the bigger airspace efficiency puzzle, and why it didn’t mention GA. Say “flying” to the magazine’s readers and they think airliner, so why confuse them by introducing those who will pay the price for airspace sprawl. But what about the statistics that show  new roads increase traffic and congestion. Is there a correlation to airplanes?

Quoting an FAAer, the article ends with these words: “The airspace is the airspace. No one’s going to give us any more of it. We just have to use it better.” In other words, airspace is a zero-sum game, and no matter how the feds and the politicians spin its redesign, some of us will win efficient access, and some of us will lose it.

So is it a coincidence that business and general aviation is the go-to whipping post these days, and that the feds have again resurrected user fees…pardon me, charges…simply a coincidence? You’d have to be pretty paranoid to believe that, right? Remember that old line, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t really out to get you. — Scott Spangler

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2 Responses to “Wired Airspace: It’s all About NYC & Airlines”

  1. Ron Says:

    The article (and the folks at Mitre) miss the point. The bottleneck is not airspace. It never was. There’s plenty of airspace.

    The real limitation is pavement. We’re limited on runways, on airports, on gates, on taxiways. Once the plane is in the air it’s easy.

  2. Todd Says:

    Can you imagine the awful state of Air Traffic Control funding today if it was user-fee based? After the last two years the whole system would be in trouble. Jobs cut, equipment not fixed, new technology programs shelved, and services curtailed or eliminated would be the norm.

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