Report Out On NY Flight Delays Causes And Nationwide Effects


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Report Out On NY Flight Delays Causes And Nationwide Effects

By Daniel Baxter

November 3, 2010 - The Department of Transportationís Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued their report on the causes and nationwide effects of flight delays at the principal New York area airports; Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark.

The Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Aviation requested that OIG determine the principal causes of flights delays in the New York region and identify the corresponding effect of these delays nationwide.

During the summer of 2007, these airports led the Nation with over 40 percent of arriving flights either delayed or cancelled. OIG conducted an audit from June 2009 through August 2010 in accordance with government auditing standards prescribed by the Comptroller General of the United States.


OIG based their observations and conclusions on interviews with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), air carriers, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as well as their analysis of air traffic and delay data collected by FAA and the Department of Transportationís (DOT) Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS).

OIG reported that flight delays in the New York area have three main causes; crowded airspace due to the close proximity and high volume of flight operations of the three main New York airports, airport capacity constraints, and continued growth in air traffic during the last 10 years, in part due to the phase-out of flight limits (caps) from 2000 to 2007.

In 2008, the FAA reestablished caps at Kennedy and imposed them for the first time at Newark, but these have done little to reduce New York area delays.  While there is substantial agreement that New York delays have a nationwide "ripple effect," the extent and nature of their impact are largely unknown. The FAA's efforts to measure this effect are in the developmental stage and require additional work to provide a full understanding of delay propagation.

OIG made four recommendations to the FAA aimed at reexamining its flight caps, enhancing existing flight data, and developing a viable methodology for understanding delay propagation effects. The FAA fully concurred with one recommendation and partially concurred with three. OIG is requesting that the FAA provide OIG with a new written response addressing specific issues with these three recommendations within 30 days.


Flight delays have been a significant problem for the New York region for many decades. While various factors have contributed to this problem, the three principal causes are a small and densely occupied airspace, limited capacity among the regionís three main airports, and continued growth in air traffic.

FAA first attempted to manage flight delays at LaGuardia, Newark, and Kennedy in 1970 using flight limits (or caps) under the High Density Rule, but those limits were phased out between 2000 and 2007.  While the phase-out had noticeable benefits, such as reduced air fares and service to new markets due to increased competition, it also led to record levels of flight delays for the New York region.

To prevent delays from getting worse, the FAA reintroduced flight caps in 2008. Yet, these new caps have done little to reduce delays at New York because the FAA based the caps on the airportsí 2007 operating levels despite record delays and did not establish an on-time performance target.  OIG reported for flight caps to have more success in preventing delays from again rising to record levels, the FAA will need to reexamine them, basing them on realistic airport operating conditions, air carrier scheduling practices, and an acceptable rate of delay.

While there is substantial agreement within the aviation community that New York delays have a propagation (i.e., ripple) effect across the Nation, the extent and nature of their impact are largely unknown. The FAA and othersí attempts to measure the ripple effect have been hampered by the volume, complexity, and limitations of existing flight data and analytic methods as well as insufficient leadership and coordination among research groups studying this issue.

Although the FAA has initiated two projects to measure delay propagation, additional work remains before either will prove to be useful analyses of delay propagation. As a result, no one fully understands the impact of New York flight delays nationwide, whether New York airports absorb or generate delays, or what other airports are affected and to what degree.

Gaining a greater understanding of the dynamics of flight delays and their nationwide impact will aid the FAAís efforts to reduce flight delays and congestion, better manage air traffic, and improve investment decisions.  OIG is recommending that FAA reexamine its flight caps, enhance existing flight data, and develop a viable methodology for understanding the propagation effects of flight delays.

OIG is recommending that the FAA

1) Reexamine flight caps at Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark airports, basing the caps on more realistic airport operating conditions, air carrier scheduling practices, and a goal towards reducing delays to an acceptable rate. In considering an acceptable rate and length of delay, FAA should incorporate the views of air carriers, the airport operator, and passenger groups as well as lessons learned from other slot-controlled airports.

2. Establish a working group of air carriers, academia, and other aviation research organizations to enhance the understanding of delay propagation (e.g., develop viable analytic.

3. Enhance existing flight delay data by obtaining aircraft tail numbers for domestic and international flight operations of U.S. air carriers in order to better study and manage the propagation effect of flight delays.

4. Complete development of a viable methodology for measuring the dynamics of flight delays at New York (as well as other U.S. airports) and their propagation nationwide. This methodology should include the ability to measure both the amount of delay time being propagated and the number of subsequent flights being impacted.


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