More flights, but not more runways

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has released its first measure of airport capacity throughout the nation, and it shows that airlines often exceed airports' capacity with their schedules. The problem only worsens when the weather gets bad.

  • At the eight most crowded airports in the U.S. – Atlanta, Newark, La Guardia, O'Hare, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Kennedy – airlines have scheduled far more flights than runways can handle in bad weather.

  • And at four of them – Atlanta, Newark, La Guardia and O'Hare – they scheduled more flights than runways can handle even in perfect weather.

  • The study, which covers the 30 most congested airports in America plus Memphis, a cargo hub, also shows projected demand growth to 2010 at these airports will increase – from 4 percent at Washington National Airport to 42 percent at Orlando.

  • Yet fewer than half expect to build more runways.

    An example of over-utilisation of runways would be Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport. About 50 jets can take off and land there every 15 minutes. But the airlines tried to get nearly 60 flights in during some 15-minute spans.

    Airlines try to accommodate passengers' schedule preferences, which creates heavy runway demand. At Newark, for example, flights peak sharply at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

    Experts say demand for additional runways is inescapable. But privatisation of the air traffic control system would lead to swift modernisation of equipment – which could do much to reduce delays.

    Sources: Matthew L. Wald, Study Says Some Airports Exceed Capacity, New York Times; and Alan Levin and Jayne O'Donnell, "FAA Study Shows Airlines Push Airports to Limit," USA Today; both appeared April 26, 2001.

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