JULY 29, 2010
At JFK, More Flying, Less Waiting on the Tarmac
By SCOTT MCCARTNEY
Like kids lined up outside an ice-cream shop on a hot summer day, planes on taxiways at New York's Kennedy International Airport were forced to queue up and wait. Every afternoon, 40 or so jets would inch forward, often idling an hour or more for takeoff.
Today, the long lines are gone thanks to a high-tech reservations system. Now, airlines file flight plans with the Federal Aviation Administration indicating what time they want to take off. A metering program compiles requests, and takeoffs are scheduled in 15-minute blocks of time. Airplanes don't leave the gate until their assigned time. And as a result, the conga line of 40 jets lined up at the end of a runway has been reduced to six to eight.
"We're certainly seeing that there is a more efficient way to run an airport," said Bob Junge, manager of airport operations at JFK for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airport.
The FAA says it is now evaluating the system to develop a more permanent plan and may explore the possibility of using it at other airports. Likely candidates: Chicago O'Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta and Washington-Dulles.
"It's been a home run," said Mike Sammartino, the FAA's director of system operations. While officially the system is still a work in progress, and airlines are nervous the FAA will back away from departure metering, Mr. Sammartino says "it will stay in place. Everyone sees the benefit."
JFK is still one of the worst in the country for delays, but by metering departures, the delays have been shifted to the terminal instead of the taxiway. That offers greater comfort for passengers, who can wait in the terminal with restaurants, bathrooms, airport lounges and more-comfortable chairs rather than being belted into aluminum tubes.
Airlines get a big bonus, too, in fuel and maintenance savings. Engines can burn lots of fuel idling and revving up to move forward in line. And engine maintenance is often scheduled and paid for by the hour, so taxiing for an extra hour each day can significantly run up maintenance costs.
"Our fuel burn is way down," said jetBlue Chief Executive David Barger.
While delays are still pervasive, airlines say the metering has cut a few minutes off the average. Most of the improvement comes from shorter delays when shifting winds force takeoffs and landings onto different runways. With fewer planes in line, it doesn't take as long to re-arrange the airport.
Extremely long waits to take off seem to have been improved as well. In March and April, the most recent months reported, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics counted only one JFK departure that waited on the tarmac more than three hours before takeoff. Last year in the same period, 21 flights sat on the tarmac more than three hours before departure.
For years airports in Europe have assigned specific takeoff times, but U.S. airlines have seen that as harshly restrictive, and the FAA has always taken a freer path, with departing flights first come, first served. If flights didn't get in line, they didn't go.
It was the four-month closing of JFK's longest runway that prompted a new approach. To avert chaos, the airport deployed a beefed-up scheduling system used to smooth operations during snowstorms. That system, built by Passur Aerospace Inc. in 2001, helped airlines, the airport and the FAA plan runway closures for snowplows and did some crude metering of departures so that airlines could plan when to de-ice jets.
Airline, FAA and Port Authority officials dealing with the runway-resurfacing project figured that the Passur system might help minimize delays when the airport had to live with only three runways instead of four. So the Port Authority contracted with Passur to build a more advanced system.
"We treated this like a 120-day snowstorm," Mr. Junge said.
Metering was so effective at reducing delays, saving airlines money and improving passenger comfort that airlines clamored to keep it running when the runway reopened June 28.
Despite the simplicity of the restaurant-reservation idea, it took a major effort to put the metering system in place. While the system uses sophisticated software and an elaborate communications network linking airlines with airport schedulers, making reservations is still mostly a manual process. Like the best maitre d', schedulers have to know the local market and know their customers. They study weather forecasts, flight paths and other factors to design the best order for takeoffs to maximize efficiency and accommodate requests and preferences from airlines.
In a small room with windows looking out on the departure end of runway 13R, Roger Stebbins and Nadine Farrell, both retired, long-time New York controllers, plan an afternoon of takeoffs. They now work for Passur, which operates the metering system.
Mr. Stebbins and Ms. Farrell study particular weather patterns for the day—wind speed and direction, cloud cover, storm tracks. A database shows how many arrivals and departures have happened at the airport under particular weather conditions, and predicts based on historical patterns how many takeoffs will occur in each 15-minute block. On a recent day, Mr. Stebbins noted that the system based its forecast for the day on 126 prior instances at JFK with the same weather and airport configuration.
"It tells us how the airport will perform and how confident it is based on the data," said Tom White, Passur's director of air traffic management.
Mr. Stebbins and Ms. Farrell take the prediction and assign flights and estimated taxi time. If airlines don't like the assigned time, they can ask for a change through the computer system, or chat online with the schedulers to resolve problems. Carriers can switch flights if they want to favor a departure with VIPs or lots of connecting passengers onboard, or give a plane undergoing mechanical repair more time before losing its reservation. They can even trade reservation times with other airlines.
For airlines, the system requires more intensive planning. Since departures may sit at gates longer, schedules have to be adjusted so that arriving flights don't sit waiting for the gate to open up.
Stormy weather can be particularly disruptive. Summertime thunderstorms may suddenly change departure routes, meaning jets at the end of the runway may not be able to go and planes that could take off may be sitting at the gate. When certain routes do re-open, controllers want airplanes heading that way to be at the end of the runway, but that means forecasting the actual time a storm will clear.
"We hope to automate that but today we do it manually," Mr. Junge said.
Write to Scott McCartney at firstname.lastname@example.org
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