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Upgrading to World Class: The Future of the New York Region’s Airports

Posted by Content Coordinator on Monday, January 31st, 2011


Executive Summary

Intercity travel is at the core of an increasingly interconnected and competitive global economy. Without the ability to efficiently transport business and  leisure travelers and time-sensitive cargo, both domestic and international business would grind to a halt. Since virtually all long-distance travel is by air, along with a high proportion of shorter distance travel between cities, metropolitan economies depend on their ability to provide high-quality airline service to many destinations. This is especially true for world-city regions like the New York metropolitan area that are even more dependent on industries with a high propensity for flying. In New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the leading economic sectors – financial and business services, tourism,  pharmaceuticals, media and communications, higher education, research and development – all rely on frequent air travel to many destinations. Indeed, the region’s status as a nexus for domestic and international air travel is intricately linked to its role as a premier center of global commerce.

This crucial link between air travel and economic prosperity is threatened by a lack of adequate capacity in the region’s aviation system, including air space, airports and landside connections. This is manifested in flight delays that greatly exceed those of every other major airport in the United States. These delays cost the region hundreds of millions of dollars each year in lost wages and business income. In the future, without additional capacity the impacts will be far more severe. While delays cost valuable time and can inhibit some from flying, having too few flights to handle demand will prevent millions from flying and cost the region thousands of jobs and billions of dollars.

Strained capacity at the airports is more than a local problem. Delays at the region’s three major airports – Kennedy, Newark and LaGuardia – ripple through the national aviation network causing delays from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles, CA. Constraining the New York region’s capacity for air travel growth would also weaken the nation’s ability to compete for global business in finance, media and other industries for which New York is the nation’s leading international center.

Solutions will require both short-term and long-term actions, as well as a coordinated strategy by a number of public and private sector participants,  including the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the three airports, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates and controls the nation’s airspace, the private airlines that operate terminals and schedule flights, and the city and state agencies responsible for the roads and  transit network connecting to the airports. The findings and recommendations that follow, while not necessarily representing the views of any organization other than Regional Plan Association, were developed in consultation with these and other stakeholders listed in the appendix.

Today, the region’s three airports rank 1st, 2nd and 3rd for worst delays in the nation, a product of more flights than the region’s constrained airports and  airspace can handle. While delays at most airports in the nation averaged about 10 minutes, takeoff and landing delays at each of our airports exceeded an average of 20 minutes per flight. These averages mask the wide variability that can make flying times unpredictable and frustrating. To limit the delays  created by the excessive flights scheduled during peak times, the FAA placed a cap on hourly flights at all three major airports. This action limits the ability of  the three airports to meet current or projected growth.

While the rate of growth is difficult to predict, the demand for air travel is almost certain to continue to increase substantially over the coming decades. Air traffic has increased in every decade since commercial flights were introduced, and a growing international service economy will drive up demand in the future. In 2010, about 104 million people flew in and out of our three major airports. It is expected that the demand for passenger volumes would reach 150 million, if the capacity is available, as early as 2030. The growth is fueled by global economic expansion, the continuing attraction of the New York region for visitors, and growth in the region’s population, from 22.4 million today to an expected 27.3 million by 2040.

If they can be accommodated, these additional air passengers represent a major source of growth for the region’s economy. In 2009, air passengers and cargo generated $16.8 billion in wages and $48.6 billion in sales to the region, and supported nearly 415,000 jobs. Without additional capacity, the region will forego an increasing number of jobs, wages and sales each year. By the 2030s, these losses could reach as many as 125,000 jobs, $6 billion in wages and $16 billion in sales each year.

To both reduce delays and accommodate future demand for air travel, the region will need to expand capacity by 78 additional flights per hour during peak  period, up from 236 today. This added capacity will be needed to serve an additional 39 million passengers, who without it, would be unable to fly into and out of the region’s airports with reasonable predictability. Just to maintain the current uncompetitive level of 20-minute delays, there would still be a need for 45 more flights per peak hour to handle an additional 22 million passengers.

Creating this capacity will require a combination of actions, some of which can be implemented in the next few years while others could take two decades or more to complete. RPA examined six categories of potential investments and demand management.

JFK Airport

Download Executive Summary (PDF): Upgrading to World Class
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About Regional Plan Association
Regional Plan Association is America’s oldest and most distinguished independent urban research and advocacy group. Now in its 86th year, RPA prepares long range plans and policies to guide the growth and development of the New York- New Jersey-Connecticut metropolitan region. RPA also provides  leadership on national infrastructure, sustainability, and competitiveness concerns. RPA enjoys broad support from the region’s and nation’s business, philanthropic, civic, and planning communities.

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