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