Debate on Auctioning Airport Take-Off and Landing Rights

The Bush administration wants to require airlines to auction off some leftover landing and take-off times at New York City’s airports. Some, including Senator Charles Schumer, are not the least bit happy. (More on the proposed auction here.)

Opponents say the auction plan would fail to address the underlying issues of delays–congestion and capacity–and ultimately make flying more expensive for customers; reduce their travel choices; and cut service to small cities.

“The bottom line is that New York’s towers are understaffed, controllers are retiring in droves, and our air traffic controllers continue to operate with equipment that’s over 50 years old,” Mr. Schumer said in testimony today before a House subcommittee, according to an emailed statement. “If the DOT and FAA don’t take steps to upgrade the technology, improve capacity at New York’s airports and hire, train and retain more full time controllers, then all we can look forward to is even more congestion and problems.”

Mr. Schumer has introduced legislation, backed by the Port Authority, to block the “misguided plan” by prohibiting the federal Department of Transportation from auctioning slots at any commercial airport in the entire country, according to a statement; and the director of aviation at the Port Authority, William DeCota, challenged the legality of implementing the plan without congressional approval.

No one is disputing the disastrous state of the nation’s airways. Mr. Schumer said nearly 30 percent of all flights were delayed during last summer’s travel season, some of the worst delays ever recorded by the FAA, and cited a report issued last month that found a cost to passengers, airlines, and the U.S. economy of over $40 billion.

He warned that the airways would be "in total gridlock" in five years if the auction plan was approved, and if the DOT does not focus on improving technology and boosting staffing at the nation’s airports.

“The bottom line is that New York’s towers are understaffed, controllers are retiring in droves, and our air traffic controllers continue to operate with equipment that’s over 50 years old,” Mr. Schumer said. “If the DOT and FAA don’t take steps to upgrade the technology, improve capacity at New York’s airports and hire, train and retain more full time controllers, then all we can look forward to is even more congestion and problems.”

The DOT’s general counsel, D.J. Gribben, defended the plan in his own testimony.

“Although market-based mechanisms are the most effective way to allocate scarce resources—like slots—we have taken a very conservative approach to introducing these mechanisms with this proposal,” Mr. Gribben said. “The vast majority of hourly operations at the airport, as much as 90 percent or more, would be ‘grandfathered’ and leased to the existing operators for non-monetary consideration. The market-based aspect of our proposal involves auctioning off leases for only a limited number of the remaining slots.” Debate on Auctioning Airport Take-Off and Landing Rights