NY congestion pricing, slot auction under fire

June 19, 2008

There was a lot of finger pointing at a hearing on New York airspace congestion. But nobody pointed a finger at general aviation as a cause for airline delays.

Even the airline’s chief lobbyist, who in the past has sounded off about restricting general aviation flights around New York, didn’t blame GA when he had to testify before the House aviation subcommittee on June 18.

The fault, according to the witnesses, lies with a lack of ground capacity, airline scheduling practices, and ultimately with the FAA. And the administration’s proposed solution—congestion pricing and auctioning off landing slots to the highest bidders—drew vehement denunciations from everyone but the Department of Transportation witness.

“The airspace is the common heritage of all Americans,” said Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) chairman of the full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “The notion that airlines can make slots their private property...is repugnant to me.” He said that airspace should be “held and used for the benefit of all Americans and for national and regional economies.”

The director of the aviation department for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (which operates five airports in the New York area, including JFK, La Guardia, and Newark) said that air traffic control today handles fewer operations than a decade ago.

“We are absolutely confounded by this,” said William DeCota. And while the DOT and FAA have spent a considerable amount of effort on academic research, the result was that “the professors explained in theory ‘market-based solutions’ but they’re never able to demonstrate how it would work in practice.”

Congestion pricing and slot auctions won’t work, said Jim May, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association. He called the administration’s market-based solutions “completely unproven text book experiments that every graduate student would love to pursue, but no one in the aviation world has ever used successfully.”

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that the administration was “putting ideology before efficiency” by pursing a “goofy, harebrained scheme.” Schumer and Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) have both introduced bills that would prohibit the federal government from conducting landing slot auctions, implementing congestion pricing, or charging certain airport use fees.

Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee, said that auctioning landing slots would be “bad for consumers” with no guarantee that it would provide any relief from congestion and delays. And he said that the FAA didn’t have the legal authority to sell off slots.

Most of the witnesses pointed to air traffic controller staffing as the most pressing problem affecting flight delays around New York. “Everybody gets it but the FAA,” said Costello. “Everyone understands that there is a crisis developing. There is a lack of adequate staffing not only in terms of numbers but experienced controllers.... All of the stakeholders—the airlines, pilots, flight attendants—everyone involved gets it except the FAA.”