NEW YORK (TIP): Anyone who frequents New York City’s airports is familiar with the delays that plague them, which are consistently ranked among the worst in the nation. And while the causes are myriad, the sheer volume of flights crowding the runways and airways is putting the system’s aging infrastructure to the test. Newark, JFK and LaGuardia handle more passengers combined-109 million in 2012-than any other regional airport system in the country.
Last year the number of flights approached the prerecession peak of 110 million-from 2007, a year notorious in the aviation industry for its record delays. While rates of growth are hard to predict, a 2011 Regional Plan Association study estimated as many as 150 million passengers by 2030. The economic losses from congestion at the airports, while hard to quantify, are very real. Not only are regional businesses and travelers affected, but delays in New York have a cascading effect on air travel throughout the nation.
According to The New York Times, a third of all delays in the country each year originate in New York airports. A study from the pro-business Partnership for New York City put the figure at closer to three quarters of all delays. Some steps are being taken at the local and federal levels to streamline, modernize and expand, but many New Yorkers are not satisfied with the snail’s pace of improvement.
In response, an unlikely coalition of policy analysts, labor representatives and business leaders came together earlier this year to launch the Global Gateway Alliance, an advocacy organization vowing to lobby for significant improvements at the city, state and federal level. “This involves multiple levels of government-and, frankly, when something requires intergovernmental cooperation, it very often doesn’t happen without an outside catalyst,” said Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City and a Global Gateway Alliance board member.
“The idea is that the Gateway Alliance provides an external advocate and pressure point for getting the multiple levels of government to cooperate and invest.” The Partnership for New York City’s 2009 study estimated that air traffic delays dealt a $2.6 billion hit to the regional economy in 2008, and projected $79 billion in avoidable costs and lost opportunities by 2025 if no improvements are made.
The study, which relied on input from the Port Authority, looked at factors like lost time for leisure and business travelers, losses sustained by shipping companies, and the costs of increased staffing and wasted jet fuel in the airline industry. The negative impacts on the environment and on New York’s ballooning tourist industry were taken into account as well.
Wylde noted that places like London and China have invested heavily in upgrading their air traffic control systems from radar to satellite-based technology, something the Federal Aviation Administration is still struggling to implement as part of their “NextGen” program. To date it is unclear when New York will receive the NextGen technology. The FAA’s regional office did not return requests for comment.
“There was a period of time during the first Obama administration in which there were a lot of people at the FAA who were focused on it and working hard to implement it,” said Stephen Sigmund, executive director of the Global Gateway Alliance. “And I think as the gridlock has happened in Washington, there just simply has been no real movement on it recently. You can’t get it done because the money’s not flowing.”
Joseph Sitt, a real estate magnate and chairman of the coalition, promised an investment of $1 million to get his airport advocacy group up and running. The Alliance has recruited an impressive collection of backers, including New York City’s Economic Development Corporation, ABNY, NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, the Hotel Association of New York City, the Hotel Trades Council, and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, along with business leaders like Jared Kushner and Alvin Trenk.
“We need a full-court press approach to reducing delays, with everyone responsible for airports playing their role,” Sitt said. “But most critically, we need the federal government to make New York City its top priority in fully implementing NextGen to relieve congestion in the skies, because without New York’s airspace functioning at its best, the rest of country won’t fully benefit from this new technology.”
Sigmund, who once headed up the Port Authority’s public affairs department, says that aside from trying to influence federal policy, the Alliance will push to modernize and expand infrastructure, and for customer service and quality of life improvements in terminals, which have outdated signs, endless TSA lines and Wi-Fi that is only available for a fee. The Alliance also hopes to circumvent government gridlock and bureaucracy by harnessing private investment, which Wylde said has been a major factor in improvements at airports worldwide.
New York State laws prohibit publicprivate partnerships without special legislative permission, but the Port Authority, which straddles New York and New Jersey, is exempt from such restrictions. The Port Authority’s planned renovation of LaGuardia’s grungy Central Terminal, which involves just such a private investment, is a model for the Global Gateway Alliance-but Sigmund says he isn’t sure if the plan is moving forward. “I think the Port has expressed its priority to do so, but I don’t know that there’s any process on it moving forward,” he said.
“They certainly haven’t picked a developer or done anything in that area.” A Port Authority spokesman said that private sector bids for the Central Terminal project are still being evaluated. In late July the board approved $225 million for repairs and maintenance to keep the terminal operational in the interim. The Port Authority also reached an agreement with the South Jersey Transportation Authority recently to assist in the operation of Atlantic City International Airport, in the hopes of attracting new airlines and more passengers to the underused facility.
But some observers note that Atlantic City is some 150 miles away from the core of Manhattan. “I don’t think it’s terribly relevant to New York City,” Wylde said. In 2011 the Regional Plan Association, which is not formally affiliated with the Global Gateway Alliance, released a study assessing the region’s air travel needs and made recommendations for how best to manage demand, expand runway capacity and improve transit to and from the airports.
One of the study’s authors, Jeff Zupan, said that the Port Authority showed interest in the group’s findings but insisted on hiring a consultant to verify and expand on the study. The Port Authority expects its own study, which has been undertaken in conjunction with the FAA, to be ready early next year, according to a spokesman. Sigmund said that the lack of momentum on these projects illustrates the need for an organization like the Global Gateway Alliance. Some politicians, like Sens.
Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, have been supportive. But legislators have a lot on their plates, and airports don’t get the same level of attention as other forms of mass transit, like subways and roads. “Airports don’t get the same kind of sustained coverage from the press or attention from the stakeholders that they need to keep moving forward,” Sigmund said.
“So you get things like the announcement of the LaGuardia plan and then the attention goes away. Just as the straphangers were the vehicle for sustained improvements to the subways in the ’80s and the ’90s, we hope to create a vehicle for sustained focus on airport infrastructure today.”