JFK’s Virtual Slots Help Reduce Lengthy Ground Delays

Delays/Cancellations, JFK - New York/JFK

One of the biggest complaints that I see when we start talking about long ground delays here on the blog is that nobody seems to have a good solution. We can all jump on bad solutions like the DOT rule we have now, but there are rarely better suggestions that are workable. I’ve found one, and it’s actually temporarily in place at JFK right now.

Plane Meter

Some of you may know that I write the monthly newsletters for PASSUR Aerospace. PASSUR is a very cool little company that actually has its own private radar network at over 100 airports, primarily in the US and Canada. There are a million things that they do with this data, but as I was putting together the current newsletter, I found out about a temporary but truly awesome project going on at JFK during the runway construction that’s happening today. They’ve effectively created virtual queues so that airplanes don’t have to push off the gate until it’s closer to actual departure time.

Here’s how it works. During peak periods (operational for ten hours a day), a central command coordinates all departures and arrivals at the airport. A couple hours before scheduled departure time, each flight is assigned an actual departure time by the system. So maybe your flight was supposed to leave at 1p, but at 11a, the airline will be advised that the departure time will now be 2p. That means they can keep you at the gate and let you roam free. If they need that gate for an arriving flight, they can still board you and then push you out of the gate, but you’ll have a very clear picture of when you will actually take off. Expectations can be set appropriately, and they shouldn’t push you off the gate if a 3 hour delay is anticipated.

The result of this is that at any one time you end up with no more than eight airplanes waiting to take off (you need some kind of buffer in there) instead of 30 or more. This is good for passengers, but it’s also good for airlines. When they’re in that long line waiting for takeoff, they have to keep an engine running, sucking up gas as they wait. Now that won’t be an issue. In addition, if the winds shift and the airport needs to turn around and use different runways, there are fewer planes that need to be turned around so it can be done more quickly.

Awesome, right? Now this isn’t a fail-proof solution. When bad weather rolls in, that messes a lot of things up. A version of this system is actually used during severe weather events now at JFK for metering departures, but it doesn’t solve everything. If you have a ton of planes coming in on diversions or several planes landing while others can’t take off, you may need to free up gate space due to storms. Things can and will still go wrong, but this process is a big improvement.

So how has this been working? Well, during March 2010, they were able to handle just about the same amount of traffic as they handled in March 2009 but with one runway down for construction. Taxi-out times are virtually the same. And the average delay has actually gone down by about 5 minutes. Great stuff.

Unfortunately, this program is currently scheduled to end on June 30, when the big construction work on the runway is done. With any luck, the airport will see the benefit and decide to keep it around . . . and then hopefully other delay-prone airports will consider it as well.

[Original Photos via AZ DOT and abdallahh]

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21 comments on “JFK’s Virtual Slots Help Reduce Lengthy Ground Delays

  1. I always find it interesting that a lot of US industry observed find runway slot management such an innovative solution – this is exactly what happens at most airports around the world. Planes don’t push back until their allotted time on the runway is due. This creates no (or very little) queues. In Europe, the joined-up thinking extends even further, with aircraft not pushing back from the gate until their runway slot, route slot and landing slot have all been confirmed. Of course, this doesn’t always work as it is perfectly meant to, but most of the time it works great. This may be a revolution in flight management in the USA, but is pretty much standard practice everywhere else.

  2. If they need that gate for an arriving flight, they can still board you and then push you out of the gate, but you’ll have a very clear picture of when you will actually take off. Expectations can be set appropriately, and they shouldn’t push you off the gate if a 3 hour delay is anticipated.

    On the several 4 hour Plus Tarmac Delays I’ve encountered, that’s just it. There is NO gates available to return to the terminal………all the gates are occupied.
    Furthermore, care to predict when fog will lift? Snow will stop? Thunderstorms will end? And, many crews are scheduled very close to their maximum duty day, so they’re under great pressure to get the aircraft off the gate.

    Good weather versus adverse weather considerations:

    The current capacity benchmark at New York LaGuardia is 80-81 flights per hour in good weather.
    • Current capacity falls to 62-64 flights (or fewer) per hour in adverse weather conditions, which may
    include poor visibility, unfavorable winds or heavy precipitation.
    • LaGuardia operates close to its good-weather capacity for nearly 8 hours of the day, but these traffic
    rates cannot be sustained in adverse weather.
    • In 2000, LaGuardia had the highest rate of delays in the country. Over 15% of all flights at LaGuardia
    experienced significant levels of delay (more than 15 minutes). Average delays vary from
    47-52 minutes in both good and adverse weather.
    • In good weather, LaGuardia’s scheduled traffic is at or exceeds capacity most of the day.
    • In adverse weather, scheduled traffic exceeds capacity 12 hours of the day.

    1. This is exactly the point – in most countries (or should I say at most airports), the capacity of the airport is set by the capacity of the runway. Airlines are forced to work together to ensure that when a runway hits capacity of movements, they increase the size of the aircraft to get more passengers per movement. The other issue in a lot of these congested US airports is the prevalence of regional jets which just EAT runway capacity.

      1. Dane – the capacity of the airport is set by the capacity of the runway, but it can‘t fluctuate every day depending on the weather. That’s the big problem here.

        1. Maybe that was a typo (can/can’t) but a runway’s capacity can indeed flucuate on a daily basis–sometimes hourly. Combined with how another runway(s) is/are utilized, the overall airport’s overall ability to handle traffic can vary greatly.

  3. CF,
    Can you clarify. Years (and years ago) when I worked for operations, departure would give our airplanes a “wheels up” time, and we would push about 8 minutes before that time. Granted this wasn’t on every flight and usually had to do with ground stop/ground delays at the destination airport. Am I guess the JFK situation is different because it involves every flight?

    1. I assume you’re talking about FAA flow control? Yeah, when there is an FAA airport delay, they give flow departure times, but that wouldn’t impact just a normal day at JFK where the conga line can stretch a long way during the afternoon peak. This also has nothing to do with the FAA from an operational perspective. It’s the airport taking things into its own hands to manage the flow.

  4. Once we get pass the metering lights is there a ‘plane’-pool lane?
    200-passengers or more please….lol

    Good photo you added to the blog.

    Maybe it’s time for busy airports to be thinned out for the good of the whole industry. It won’t be popular with some, but forget trying to have service on small planes to small cities just to have service. Those little planes take up space for a small amount of people. Maybe large/busy airports should only be to/from large cities with larger planes to ease congestion on the ground and in the surrounding air.

  5. i second the initial comment, as a frequent traveler to amsterdam i have noticed 2 main differences to the usa that have made my experience so good.

    1) they do not pull back until a full comfirm of clearance is received

    2) the runways are very close to the gate. taxing time is almost non existent. you pull back and the next thing you know you are in the air

  6. Oh, look: once the DOT (finally) puts in place a sensible pro-consumer rule that costs airline money to break, magically solutions like this one that were “impossible” for years on end start appearing.

    Disgusting. Simply disgusting. Airlines simply found cheaper and more convenient to imprison people on planes. Three cheers for the DOT!

    1. DOT’s “solution” is anything but sensible, as it doesn’t do anything to discern the various reasons and contexts for delays, and instead Ms. Hanni, DOT Secretary LaHood, and all the “airline experts” without frontline airline operational experience have all taken the overly simplistic tact that “ALL” airline delays are equally bad, irrespective of the reason.

      The delays that Ms. Hanni et. al. experienced at Austin, TX, and that the CoEx passengers experienced at Rochester, MN, were all related to diversions, i.e. on the back end of their flights. The NWA and JBU blizzards at DTW and JFK, respectively, involved the respective airlines not stopping the flow of their flights into their hubs, which were literally becoming bogged down in heavy snowfalls. This is not to excuse the 6-9 hour delays that ensued or how the situations were handled, but to differentiate their causes.

      These kinds of 6-9 hour delays are rare, and since they are, the consumer outrage they provoked had to be channeled *somewhere*, and so it was—to the much more common 2-4 hour delays that one sees at the begining of flights, usually during thunderstorm events that delay departures—all delays are bad, irrespective of what caused them, right?

      Wrong. The factors that created the 6-9 hour type delays are the “apples”, and the ones that are created due to thunderstorms are the “oranges.” The “solution” driven by the “apples” will help prevent those types of situations and delays, but that same “solution” applied to the “oranges” problem is actually going to make those situations much worse.

      CF’s info on what was being used at JFK to mitigate the delays associated with their runway construction project are not a magic wand for all delay scenarios, yet you seem to be inferring such. AS CF notes, “Awesome, right? Now this isn’t a fail-proof solution. When bad weather rolls in, that messes a lot of things up. A version of this system is actually used during severe weather events now at JFK for metering departures, but it doesn’t solve everything.”

      An excellent example of such a severe weather event was yesterday, Sunday the 25th. The severe storms scrambled operations at the DCA, IAD, BWI, PHL, EWR, LGA, and JFK airports themselves (and others), and also adversely affected other aircraft that had to transit the Washington Center (ZDC) and New York Center (ZNY) to get somewhere else, Florida-to New England for example. If you’ll refrain from “The airlines are the Great Satan” mode long enough to take a look at the ATCSCC’s list of advisories for 4/25 and the first part of 4/26 (at their site at:
      http://www.fly.faa.gov/adv/adv_list.jsp?WhichAdvisories=ATCSCC&AdvisoryCategory=All&dates=Sunday%2C+04-25-2010&AirFlow=AirFlow&Gstop=Gstop&Gdelay=Gdelay&Route=Route&Other=Other) you can see for yourself how widespread and *dynamic* the weather was, and further, how much if complicates planning. Look how many different times the various airports mentioned were in and out of groundstops (GS) and ground delay programs (GDPs), not to mention also being affected by re-routes in the enroute environment. I’m sure that everyone knows realizes that Florida flights bound for New York and New England area airports have to transit ZDC’s airspace first, right? When storms prevent that, things just get that much more complicated, but I’m equally sure those additional variables will be interpreted as just being more “excuses” by all those airline meanies who are out to make the lives of their passengers more difficult. The fact that airlines will cancel many flights to avoid the ridicuously high potential fines because they can neither predict or control exactly what Mother Nature is going to do (or when) (or for how long) will also be viewed as just other airline “excuses.”

      Also, if you need some good info how FAA has contributed to this mess, check out Mike Boyd’s blog at http://www.aviationplanning, and check out this week’s “Hotflash” section. The man knows of what he speaks.

  7. I knew that picture looked familiar, looks like the 202 onramp at 44th street in PHX.

    I can only imagine the torture that is JFK at 5 pm these days.

  8. I have been saying that this type of solution can and should be a solution that is implemented. I mean having 20-30 planes waiting to departure is just bad (for many reasons).
    I routinely face this situation at Newark at peak departure times.
    Many people like to say that airline scheduling is the problem and you know what it may be, but then again a system like this would ‘force’ the airline to reschedule those that are constantly delayed.

    Brett, do you know if they utilize the same prioritization scheme that they use for overall metering (for weather). Like size of plane, passengers impacted, etc say who goes first. Meaning if 10 RJ’s and A380 is scheduled to leave at 8:30am. Who goes first? the 380 then the RJ’s?
    It would force the airline with the RJ’s to schedule more realistically! Does American or Delta want to get on that list of most delayed flights! I don’t think so.

    1. I don’t know the details here, but I imagine an airline is given a certain number of departure times per hour and then the airline decides how to spread that around. Some airlines look at the number of people impacted while others also incorporate the number of high value customers on board the different flights.

      1. Yeah, but when you say ‘airline’ does that mean operating carrier or marketing carrier. Meaning Delta does not fly the RJ’s but would they decide if they go? As I understand the flow control rules it goes by operating carrier not marketing carrier.

        I think the FAA should remove that distinction from every aspect (ontime\arrival reporting, etc), which I believe you agree with, at least, to a point.

        1. Well, it’s not as simple as marketing vs. operating unfortunately. I mean, the decisions are usually made by the main marketing carrier, but that only applies to regional relationships and not across codesharing (which would also be marketing code). But this was actually the point of a lawsuit by Mesa against Delta. Delta tried to terminate saying Mesa wasn’t performing, but Mesa argued that Delta controlled which flights went and when, so it wasn’t their fault that they didn’t perform. (This was in NYC, I believe.) The regionals generally don’t get to make decisions in these cases when they are operating on behalf of another airline.

          I do agree that marketing carrier stats should be shown by the DOT and not operating. Operating carrier is pretty worthless there.

  9. You know, it’s about time an airport the USA got a system like this. Still, given how far behind the USA is on satellite based systems, maybe it’s not a surprise.

    I am continuously amazed beyond belief that airports in the USA can have scheduled movements that run at (or even exceed) capacity for so many hours in the day. It’s insanity.

    Wake up & smell the roses guys – schedule only as many movements as the airport tarmac & ATC can handle, then have a few “slack” periods where delays due to weather & such can be picked up during the day. Get bigger aircraft to handle more popular routes. Drop routes that aren’t popular (hey, you know, that might even help cashflow!) Sure, you’re going to have bad days but they’ll be the exception, not the norm.

    No wonder passengers wind up hating the airlines, although they certainly get what they pay for in their race to pay the lowest fare possible.

    Even my 12 year old kid can figure all this out – what’s up with all the MBAs & senior execs that are supposedly god’s gift to aviation management (based on the salaries they’re sucking out). Are they just riding the horse until it dies, goes into chapter 11 and then bailing out? (yet AGAIN! Another fact I find unbelievable about airlines in the USA – should be a “no chapter 11 for 5 years” rule after emerging from bankruptcy).

  10. This system may sound good, but its NOT! Do you know how many times there are ZERO planes at the runway during JFK dept push? During periods of SWAP where lets say only the SHIPP and WAVEY routes are open, PASSUR only releases RBV or COATE depts, and keep the SHIPP and WAVEYs which CAN go, sitting down around hanger 19 shut down. I can go on forever. Taxi time may be 5 min, but you are sitting at the gate, or on the plane parked somewhere for 2 hours waiting for your “metering time” to come up, 5 min my a**. There have been numerous situations where planes meter for 2.5 hours, then have to go back because of the 3 hour rule. All BS.

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