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Op-Ed: What’s the Real Problem with New York’s LaGuardia Airport?

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Op-Ed: What’s the Real Problem with New York’s LaGuardia Airport?

Op-Ed: What’s the Real Problem with New York’s LaGuardia Airport?
September 01
05:50 2016

MIAMI — New York’s LaGuardia Airport is at it again. Always among the leaders in causing headaches for travelers, the airport is putting some more points on the misery board with its recent construction. Work has begun on taking down an existing parking garage facility, lengthening the drive in to the airport for local fliers.

The slowdowns are just the beginning of a massive overhaul project designed to renovate and modernize the airport. LaGuardia has been no stranger in the past to criticism of its very dated facilities, even leading Vice President Joe Biden to label it a “third-world” facility. Undoubtedly, even less notable travelers than Mr. Biden can agree that LaGuardia’s aging terminals could use a refresh.

But while the construction delays are drawing the most attention at the present time, these are not the delays on which travelers should be most focused. In fact, while certainly well-intentioned, the $8 billion renovation project will in fact do very little to address the real problem facing the airport.

What really jives at fliers that frequent LaGuardia is not the lack of flashy, sparkling terminals – it is the rampant flight delays that are so characteristic of the airport.

The construction delays currently facing the airport will be temporary in nature. But the renovation project does nothing at all to minimize the vast amounts of time fliers lose on a daily basis in the form of chronic flight delays, which will remain a hallmark of the airport long after the renovation project wraps up unless some action is taken.

This is not a column designed to criticize the airlines for poor operational performance. In fact, the root cause of LaGuardia’s on-time woes rest in the hands of a government-imposed policy, not with the airlines. And while it is probably safe to say that no airport in the broader NYC-metro area will ever call strong on-time performance an advantage due to airspace congestion, there is a definite step to be taken that would instantly deliver LaGuardia a much needed operational lift.

It is time to repeal an age-old restriction that is as dated as LaGuardia’s crumbling terminals. It is time for the 1,500 mile perimeter rule at LaGuardia to go.

Perimeter Rule Incentivizes Airlines to Use Small Aircraft with High Frequency

Ever tried to board a non-stop flight from LaGuardia out to the west coast, to Los Angeles for instance? Some would be surprised to find out that you can’t. Not because of lack of demand, but because of a misguided law still present at LaGuardia Airport.

For those who are unfamiliar, there is a 1,500 mile perimeter rule in place at LaGuardia that artificially limits all commercial flights to routes no more than 1,500 miles in distance. For some perspective, the cusp of that range is just about exceeded once you reach Dallas, Texas. In essence, flights to about half the country are off limits.

The intention of this policy is noble – to deflect the area’s long-haul traffic to the region’s two other airports (Newark Liberty and JFK), which have better infrastructure to handle large volumes of traffic. True, with LaGuardia’s current deficit in infrastructure, it is not prepared to process any more passengers than it already fields.

That said, the law – as with any governmental policy – comes with unintended consequences. In this case, the airport’s operational performance bears the brunt of the impact.

An airport that can’t get its flights out on time would be a concern for any city. Nowhere should this be more true than New York City – a huge business market saturated with high value fliers that crave (and depend on) reliability above all else.

LaGuardia Airport is the most conveniently located airport to the city center, just a matter of miles from downtown Manhattan. As such, it is often the airport of choice for business-oriented customers in the region. It is for the very same reason that airlines value access to the airport so highly.

However, with the 1,500 mile perimeter rule, the airlines are not fully able to meet with the demand with the level of capacity they would ideally like to provide.

Instead, what the perimeter rule creates is a situation in which the airlines must serve markets with lower demand that those they would prefer. Rather than flying to Los Angeles, they are left with cities like Nashville to fill their slots. For example, according to Diio schedule data, there were thirteen LaGuardia-Nashville flights per day during July, between American, Delta, and Southwest, with an average gauge of just 83.2 seats per departure.

Nashville is a perfectly fine city in its own right, and this article is not intended to harp on Nashville. But it is a great example of the mismatch between supply and demand. Nashville does not need thirteen daily departures, and Los Angeles needs more than zero.

Below is a list of all cities with ten or more daily departures from LaGuardia (all airlines combined). As it seems clear, Nashville is not the only question mark.


The point is, the airlines assuredly would love to shift some of that capacity to markets with more demand, and higher yields. Nashville is just a small example of the broader phenomenon at LaGuardia: too many flights for too little traffic.

Lifting the Perimeter Rule Would Mean Bigger Aircraft, Less Frequency – And Operational Improvement

The consequences of the airlines serving markets with such high frequency and such a small average gauge is that there are more flights than necessary at LaGuardia for the level of passenger traffic it experiences. Delta can call itself king in New York all it wants, but the real king of LaGuardia is simply regional jets in general.

This is a missed opportunity for LaGuardia and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ). More than in any other city in the world, the airlines need the opportunity to meet the travel demand with an appropriate level of supply.

Should there be no perimeter rule, the airlines would react by adding service to larger communities via larger aircraft, in order to maximize their own profits. This benefits consumers as well by allowing non-stop service to the destinations which they value most.

Where the operational impact comes in is with regards to the number of flights. At the end of the day, LaGuardia’s operational woes all boil down to the number of flights. Too many flights for not enough runway space.

Department of Transportation (DOT) data hammers home LaGuardia’s struggles with on-time performance quite clearly. Over the past five years, LaGuardia consistently ranks among the worst performing large airports in the United States. It more or less trends in the direction of the U.S. average – but always significantly below. Even more worrisome, as of 2015, that gap was growing.


Since there is no easy way to add another runway, the better way to boost on-time performance at LaGuardia is to cut the number of flights. The beauty is that airlines would naturally do this themselves should they be allowed to offer the service they most desire.

In a way, the current infrastructure limitations almost force the airlines into scaling down the number of daily departures, ensuring that the number of flights decreases. There is just no physical way the airlines can cram many more passengers into LaGuardia’s crumbling terminals. So they face a tradeoff: offer longer flights with a higher gauge, with fewer daily departures, or offer shorter flights with a lower gauge, at higher frequency.

When we’re talking about to link primary west coast markets with the Big Apple, the airlines go for option A every time.

Admittedly, on a practical level, the fact that LaGuardia is slot-controlled may still leave an incentive for the airlines not to cut flights, since they would not willingly relinquish valuable slots as it currently stands. Therefore, it might also be prudent to consider trimming the number of available slots, in order to remove this potential roadblock.

LaGuardia Can Unleash Operational Potential with Free Market Solution

It’s time for the PANYNJ to let go of the reigns. The 1,500 mile perimeter rule is adversely impacting the operational performance of LaGuardia Airport, and it’s time for the regulation to go.

There is a story to be told here that continues to reveal itself time and time again: the airlines know how to run the airlines best. When governmental bodies overstep their bounds and try to tell the airlines how to operate, it is usually the average consumer who pays the price.

Particularly with Delta Air Lines, the operational leader in the current airline industry, representing LaGuardia’s largest tenant, the airport has significant potential to grow. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey can unlock this potential by letting the free market solution reign.


About Author

Alex McIntyre

Alex McIntyre

Texan. Airways Business Analyst. Emory University student, and lifelong AvGeek. Favorite airport and aircraft are: Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and the Boeing 787. Passionate about all things commercial in the airline business, including route networks and hub operations. I love the window seat.

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  1. Hugh B
    Hugh B September 01, 12:40

    A DCA-esque solution would also work i.e. a limited number of flights beyond the perimeter. The problem is that Airlines can’t fly 777s out of LGA so, it wouldn’t be the biggest growth ever.

  2. Kelly
    Kelly September 01, 13:54

    In this proposal, you are not cutting slots and adding more passengers and larger planes, therefore delays have nowhere to go but up.

  3. Sam
    Sam September 01, 15:19

    I wonder if it is possible to get only Delta’s on-time performance data for LGA. It should be higher than the average. In order to bolster their OTP they seem to have padded their schedules out of LGA. The flights to ATL are now blocked at about 2 3/4 hours, which I’d say is a 1/2 hour longer than they used to be. The most extreme case was when I flew to RIC on a Delta Connection flight that was supposed to take 1 1/2 hours, but without any ground traffic it only took 45 minutes.

    The perimeter rule should indeed go, but the airlines also played a part in lowering gauge by emphasizing frequency while also having more capacity discipline. When I was young Delta (and Song) used 757s to PBI, and Delta flew 767s to ATL. Now it is typically a 717 to PBI and an MD-88 to ATL (I did once fly a 737-900 to ATL, but that is still not a proper replacement for the domestic 767 fleet).

  4. H. B.
    H. B. September 02, 01:12

    The LGA slots should be incentivized so that carriers get rewarded for flying larger planes. For instance, if you have 8 slots currently in use by 70-seat CRJs/ERJs, you get to trade them for, let’s say: 6.5 slots if flown by 717s/CS100s; 5.75 slots if flown by A319s/737-700s; 5 slots if flown by A320s/737-800s; 4.5 slots if flown by A321s/757s; or 4.0 slots if flown by 767s. The currency for a slot would be some formula that adds non-linear bonus credit to larger and larger aircraft. The carriers would need the ability to trade those credits back to the Port Authority (and undo the formula), if they need to downgauge for, let’s say, seasonal traffic. The carriers would need a firm guarantee that new slots would not be created for other carriers due to the newly emergent available landing slots (or perception thereof), since the carriers need the ability to execute a downgauge when they require it.

  5. Ssur
    Ssur September 03, 13:04

    No surprise the author is an Atlanta guy, removing the perimeter rule is a 100% direct subsidy to one airline, Delta.

    Does nothing for the NYC travelers who will lose hundreds of nonstop convenient flights to Nashville, Norfolk, Grand Rapids, etc.. Will be all replaced with La and San Fran.

  6. steve
    steve September 04, 09:33

    I remember when US Airways had many Dash-8 flights from LGA to PHL and added to that were dash-8 and 50 seat RJ’s to small cities such as PVD,BDL,ALB and other even smaller cities. Having access to LGA is not a right but local politicians have fought to keep this low level of riders per plane in their districts.
    Having a 737 with 130 passengers makes much better use of LGA’s slots than a 35 seat Dash-8 to ABE or the like.

    LGA will never have more than 2 runways so it makes more sense to move more people per plane to better utilize the airports only 2 runways.
    Service from small cities to LGA are possible via a one stop connection through CLT,DTW,CLE and others. Changing planes is done everyday for flyers all over the country, small cities need to get over themselves and think of the good for the greatest number of people.

  7. steve
    steve September 04, 18:11

    Don’t need 777’s to offer service beyond 1500 miles. 757’s, 737-800’s and A320’s can all do transcons. Small airliners, seating 70-95 should make up only 20-25 percent of the slots used and those 50 seats and less should be banned. A slot used on such small planes is a waste of a limited asset.

  8. 121Pilot
    121Pilot September 06, 05:36

    This analysis has several flaws I’m afraid. First as the author does belatedly note without cutting the number of slots bigger airplanes are going to mean more passengers and greater congestion and larger aircraft are only going to exacerbate the situation out on the taxiways as they occupy more real estate.

    Secondly the author assumes that certain cities are getting excess service as a result of the slot controls. Airlines provide a level of service these days that is generally commensurate with demand and in several cases the market has demonstrated its willing to pay a premium for frequency. Take the DC and Boston shuttles as a prime example of this. These aren’t markets with excess capacity they are markets where the market wants and is willing to pay for frequency.

    Third the author ignores the competitive aspects of this move. Simply lifting the perimeter rule will produce a greater benefit for Delta and American given their large slot portfolios than an Airline like
    JetBlue or United would receive. A prime example would be JetBlue’s Mint service to LAX and SFO. Unless there is going to new slots awarded or a reallocation of existing slots (Both unlikely and neither helping with the delay issue) JetBlue’s Transcon offerings would now operate with a significant handicap compared to those of Delta or American.

    Finally the author looks at only
    one airport and ignores the broader picture of delays at all three NYC area airports. The fact is that delays at all three airports are driven far less by runway congestion than by ATC system congestion and its ability to accommodate a high volume of traffic from three closely spaced airports.

    Let’s take JFK as an example. Currently JFK and LGA have a broadly comparable cap on the number of slots despite the fact that JFK has double the number of runways. JFK on the best day in its ideal configuration presently runs three of those runways leaving one idle. Contrast that to SFO which has a broadly similar configuration and on any normal day is running all four runways. Why the difference? LGA. Because of the traffic conflicts between JFK and LGA traffic at JFK is artificially constrained. The fact is that having three major airports in such close proximity creates air traffic delays at all three airports in ways that can’t be mitigated by playing with the rules at LGA.

    The real solution (and unfortunately it’s a politcal non-starter) is to shutter and bulldozer LGA. JFK has ample real estate to accommodate a significant increase inflights and room on the ground for new or greatly expanded terminals. Plus if runway capacity is a problem it would be physically possible to add additional runways in Jamaica bay.

    Getting rid of LGA would free up air traffic flows and dramatically reduce delays into and out of the NY metro area. Unfortunately as I’ve mentioned the concept is a political non-starter but we need to recognize the truth that anything less is simply a rearrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic. It might look nice but it’s ultimately a futile gesture.

  9. steve
    steve September 06, 20:11

    Airlines at LGA have used slots in the past to maintain the total they have and have used them unwisely such as US having in the past many Dash-8 flights to PHL when in reality only 2 or 3 were needed. It takes a bit longer for a Dash-8 to land and take off due to the slower speeds the plane offers. Small planes also use ATC for ground movements and thus smaller planes moving a small number of people are wasting a limited number of slots. Land ten 50 seaters or ten 130 seaters, do the math and see what is the most efficient use of the slots.
    LGA is the most desired airport for those wanting to fly to New York. Its sad that in all these years the city has dragged its feet in not providing subway service to both LGA and JFK. Its been talked about for years and yet no results. Airports should be exempt from local laws as any airport project is always meet with apposition. It took Boston’s Logan airport 20 years to build a commuter runway 14-32 on its own property.
    Air travel is always increasing but airports are hamstrung by local hacks and those who move there knowing the airport is nearby and then rant and rave about the noise. Airports should be free of local and state laws that interfere with needed improvements and expansion to keep pace with the growth of air travel.

  10. Steve
    Steve September 11, 16:06

    Why not just cut the mileage limit from 1,500 to 1,000? This would force the same thing.

  11. steve
    steve September 11, 19:45

    The idea is to make the best use of the limited number of slots by using larger planes,thus moving more passengers per flight. No way should 35 to 50 seat planes be tying up approach patterns and also adding to the congestion on ground operations. The #1 city for business in the country needs to open access for the greatest number of people and cutting the mileage limit from 1500 to 1000 would be counterproductive. LGA needs open access to the entire country and since it is slot controlled, the larger markets should occupy the greatest number of slots. The size of the market makes it a waste to allow very small planes,I.E. 35-50 seaters. Larger RJ’s 90-110 seats could make up for 2 to 3 smaller flights by reducing frequency.

  12. steveb
    steveb April 25, 21:07

    From my experience, the problem has not been runway congestion, but gates. Larger planes require longer times at each gate so this would make the problem worse. Rather than cutting traffic based on distance, it would make more sense to reduce the amount of passengers that are connecting through LGA without actually going to NYC. A higher fee on connecting itineraries might influence better routes.

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