Slot controls are coming to JFK (and maybe Newark, too)

It is no secret that air travel in the northeastern part of the USA is a nightmare. Between weather delays, limited capacity airports with zero room to grow, local residents with a lot of money and lobbying clout and some of the most densely packed airspace anywhere in the world, flight delays and cancellations have become the norm rather than the exception. I’ve blogged about it before and clearly something had to give. Well, today that happened.

The US Department of Transportation has indicated that they are going to implement limits at JFK to better space the air traffic in and around the NYC area. Also known as slot controls, the rules effectively limit carriers from just deciding to show up at the airport and ask for a landing slot when they get there (it doesn’t really work that way, but it is pretty close). Instead, all the airlines will have to get their schedules approved to ensure that the number of flights in any given hour is limited to 82-83. Since that is pretty much the maximum that the airprt can handle the fact that there are > 100 in some hours these days is a sure-fire way to delays. Even worse, the airlines blame the delays on “Air Traffic Control” rather than themselves (as though somehow the ATC folks are supposed to bend the rules of space and time to make more planes land on a runway than is physically possible), so the airlines aren’t liable for accommodating passengers who misconnect. This ends up pretty messy for passengers rather often.

The problem with slot controls is that it presents a huge barrier to entry for airlines that want to establish new service. Buying landing slots isn’t cheap. Some other major airports with slot controls/limits include Tokyo’s Nartia (NRT) and London’s Heathrow (LHR). With the recent Open Skies treaty many carriers are working to secure slots at LHR, with the price reportedly surpassing $10MM. That’s a huge investment to make, especially considering that most carriers fly to a place more than once a day. Effectively the slot controls are a mint for the existing carriers, as they can sell their slots to the highest bidder if they want (and think they’d make more money that way than via actually operating flights). Indeed, BMed (now owned by bmi) has been operating “ghost flights” for some time in and out of LHR to ensure that they get to keep the slots at LHR, waiting for the Open Skies thing to happen so they can sell them for big money or actually operate flights and make money that way.

Of course, LaGuardia has been slot controlled for a while now – since shortly after the summer of hell in 2001 when it and Chicago’s O’Hare were responsible for something like 40% of all delays nationwide. And some effort is being put in to making sure that the airlines don’t all just move their problems across New York harbor to Newark airport, since there are already plenty of problems there, too.

So now Lufthansa has bought ~19% of JetBlue, one of the largest carriers at JFK. And they own a sizable stake in bmi, the second largest slot-holder at LHR. They could conceivably cause a lot of trouble in the trans-Atlantic market if they saw fit. Or just make a lot of money doing so.

Things are going to remain bad for a while until real change comes about in the FAA’s navigation and air traffic routing plans, but hopefully this will help prevent carriers from pretending that they can actually operate the schedules that they’re selling the public on, especially when they know full well that they have no chance of actually getting the job done.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.