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.
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.