Perverse Incentives Undemine Air-Travel Efficiency


SmallPlanesBigDelaysTable.gif   Source of graph:  online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


Why not solve the problem discussed below by privatizing airports, which would then have a profit-maximizing incentive to reduce congestion by charging more for landing rights?  And if the prices were bid high enough, that, in turn would provide an incentive to build more airports. 


(p. A1)  The nation’s air-travel system approached gridlock early this summer, with more than 30% of June flights late, by an average of 62 minutes. The mess revved up a perennial debate about whether billions of dollars should be spent to modernize the air-traffic control system. But one cause of airport crowding and flight delays is receiving scant attention. Airlines increasingly bring passengers into jammed airports on smaller airplanes. That means using more flights — and increasing the congestion at airports and in the skies around them.

At La Guardia, half of all flights now involve smaller planes: regional jets and turboprops. It’s the same at Chicago’s O’Hare, which is spending billions to expand runways. At New Jersey’s Newark Liberty and New York’s John F. Kennedy, 40% of traffic involves smaller planes, according to Eclat Consulting in Reston, Va. Aircraft numbers tell the tale: U.S. airlines grounded a net 385 large planes from 2000 through 2006 — but they added 1,029 regional jets — says data firm Airline Monitor.

As air-travel woes have spread, some aviation officials and regulators, including the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, have begun saying delays could be eased if airlines would consolidate some of their numerous flights on larger planes.

Just two problems with that. One is that airlines like having more flights with smaller jets. The other is that passengers like it, too.

. . .

Former American Airlines boss Robert Crandall says Congress should let the FAA go back to controlling slots, matching scheduling to capacity. Airport overcrowding is "fixable, but it’s not fixable without major policy change," the former AMR Corp. CEO said at a recent conference.

Another proposal: Change the structure of landing fees. Airports now set them by weight. A small jet pays a smaller landing fee than a large plane, even though its use of the runway is the same. Why not charge a flat fee per landing, suggest some economists — or even charge the small jets more, to encourage airlines to shift to fewer flights on larger jets?

Yet another idea is to tie landing fees to the level of demand through the day, so they’d cost more at peak hours. This would encourage airlines to spread out flights and use bigger planes, says Dorothy Robyn, a consultant at Brattle Group and former aviation adviser in the Clinton administration. She says the current system "guarantees overuse of the air-traffic-control system because airlines aren’t charged the true cost."


For the full story, see: 

SCOTT MCCARTNEY.  "FREQUENT FLYING; Small Jets, More Trips Worsen Airport Delays FAA Likes Bigger Craft But Passengers, Airlines Prefer Busy Schedules."  The Wall Street Journal  (Mon., August 13, 2007):  A1 & A13.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)


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