Tampa's record is better than most, and new runways may ease the strain there and around the nation eventually.
By JEAN HELLER
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001
Remember the nightmare of flying last summer? Crummy weather. Interminable delays. Canceled flights. Air rage. Get ready to do it again this year and for as many as 10 years to come.
A report issued Wednesday by the Federal Aviation Administration concludes that most of the nation's airports can handle growing air traffic loads as long as the weather is good. But throw thunderstorms, adverse winds, fog, snow, ice or sleet into the mix and most of the nation's 31 busiest airports slide into traffic chaos.
The record is considerably better than most at Tampa International Airport, where the FAA reported that only 1.6 flights in every 1,000 was delayed last year.
But if the other end of the flight is in the New York City area, the busiest destination from Tampa, expect to wait. New York LaGuardia had the worst delay record last year: 156 flights out of every 1,000, or nearly 16 percent of all flights. Newark was second, John F. Kennedy seventh.
The nation's busiest airports simply don't have the runway capacity or the aircraft handling technology to serve a growing airline industry in less-than-ideal weather conditions. With the long summer vacation season, complete with thunderstorms, only a month away, that is not good news for travelers.
"In the last couple of years, an increasing percentage of the flying public ... has been subjected to extensive delays," Peter Challan, deputy associate administrator of the FAA, said Wednesday. The FAA considers a delay an arrival or departure that is more than 15 minutes late.
"The administrator wanted better data for ourselves and the broader community to use to determine how we can add capacity," Challan said.
The answer from the FAA's view is twofold: more runways and new technology that will permit pilots and air traffic controllers to operate flights more efficiently during takeoffs, approaches and landings.
In the last decade, as the airline industry experienced enormous growth, new runways were built at only six of the busiest 31 airports in the country. More are planned for the next 10 years, but not enough.
Today, eight airports -- the three serving New York plus Chicago O'Hare, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Boston -- experience what the FAA calls "significant passenger delays." Ten years from now, the agency said, you can add Los Angeles to the list. The only two where new runways will alleviate the situation are Boston and Atlanta.
Other airports that plan new runways in the next decade include Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, Phoenix, Washington Dulles, St. Louis, Detroit, Cincinnati, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Miami, Seattle-Tacoma, Orlando, Charlotte and Denver.
TIA also foresees a new runway, but plans are not far enough along to make the FAA's list.
Some airports that would like to expand can't.
"This is really a local issue," Challan said. "A lot of airports are surrounded by water, major highways and residential and industrial development. There really isn't room to expand."
To an extent, that is all true of TIA. It is bounded on the west and south by water and on the east by the residential and industrial community of Drew Park. To make additional room, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority has been buying up Drew Park and razing the buildings with an eye to moving air cargo and aircraft services there from their current locations north of the passenger terminal complex.
About 10 years down the road, TIA will have a third north-south runway, to be squeezed onto the western edge of the airport's property along Eisenhower Boulevard.
"We think our new runway will be needed by 2010," said Louis Miller, executive director of the aviation authority. "In addition to meeting immediate traffic needs, it will also give us the ability to handle the new terminal complex when it is built beyond 2020 (on land north of the existing terminal)."
But new technology and new runways aren't all that is needed, according to Larry Kiernan, manager of the capacity branch of the FAA's office of airports.
"Everything has to be developed," Kiernan said. "Airports need more gate capacity and more baggage and ticketing capacity. There is a big need for investment in terminals."
TIA is doing that, too. Airside E has been demolished and will be rebuilt with more gates. Airsides D and C will be remodeled next. The ticketing level of the Landside Terminal is undergoing major renovation designed to move people faster and more efficiently, and baggage claim will be enlarged considerably.
The airlines themselves can help, too, FAA officials said, by re-examining their flights and equipment. The number of flights could be reduced and passenger loads increased by changing out smaller planes for larger ones.
While the FAA data showed that TIA has a good record for avoiding delays even as things stand, the agency also indicated that the airport is not as efficient as it could be during bad weather.
The airport's capacity during optimum weather conditions is 110 to 119 flights per hour. During bad weather, that capacity drops to 80 to 87 aircraft, or fewer. At Minneapolis-St. Paul, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Detroit, Dulles and Houston, there is very little falloff from good weather to bad.
Cincinnati, for example, can handle 123 to 125 aircraft during good weather, 121 to 125 during bad weather.
Still, the FAA said, even during bad weather, TIA's capacity is met or exceeded for only about an hour a day.