The sky’s not the limit
The expression: “The sky’s the limit, “ is often used to suggest the only limit to higher achievement is the distant sky. But when it comes to air travel, the sky is not the limit. The limit is on the ground.
Well-meaning media pundits often say delays in air travel are the result of “crowded skies.” Then, they go on to plant the impression that the world’s best air traffic control system is over-loaded as well. Neither assertion is accurate.
Here are the facts: The volume of sky that sits over America is huge. If every aircraft in America were put in the sky at the same time with one mile of separation between planes, the entire aviation armada would fit within the skies over Wisconsin. But along our highly urbanized coastlines, we do have too many airliners trying to take off or land about the same time at too few airports.
Three factors are to blame for non-weather air traffic delays: (1) The marketing departments of the airlines, (2) the pro-environment and anti-noise activists and (3) slavish devotion by the airlines to the hub and spoke system.
The marketing gurus want their airliners to take off at 8:00 a.m. and return around 5:00 p.m. For the business traveler who wants to go out and back the same day, that is wonderful. But, for the rest of the traveling public, such scheduling creates a system-clogging traffic jam at the major hub airports.
Each morning, at the major hubs, hundreds of airliners are lined up nose-to-tail on the taxiways waiting to take off. Toward the end of the business day, those hundreds of airliners are lined up in the sky as they are metered by air traffic control back into their hubs. This crowds the skies around the major hub airports resulting in air traffic control delays whose ripple effects can gum up the overall air traffic control system.
Like it or not, our geographic-demographic reality is that the bulk of our population is packed into a relatively few urban areas on both coasts. But the skies across “fly-over” land are virtually empty.
Another reality is that powerful environmental interests and noise-sensitive airport neighbors will not permit the construction of badly needed new runways or new airports near large cities. Despite the enormous need for additional runways and new airports only Boston-Logan might permit a new runway. Chicago might build a new airport. Other than that, forget it.
The hub and spoke system is the third factor in causing air traffic delays. The airlines like hub and spoke because it saves them money. Passengers dislike it because, instead of being able to fly directly from Point A to Point B, they must fly to Hub C and either change planes or wait until their airliner is off-loaded and then re-loaded to take them, at long last, to where they really wanted to go in the first place.
Thus, other than the shortage of major airports, today’s non-weather air traffic delays are really the fault of the airlines themselves. Take aim. Shoot foot.
But instead of fixing their part of the problem by better scheduling and less use of the hub and spoke system, the airlines try to blame flight delays on general aviation. But since those “little airplanes” are less than six percent of the traffic at major hub airports only the village idiot would believe that.
Some think air traffic control would be more efficient if turned over to quasi-governmental corporations modeled after Amtrak or the U.S Postal Service. Right.
Some want “user fees” imposed for each and every service performed by the FAA. Both of these ideas work poorly overseas where they have been tried and neither idea addresses the real problems of: too few major airports, poor scheduling and overuse of the hub and spoke system.
No, the sky is not the limit. The ground and a shortage of gray matter among airline executives are the real limits.
William Hamilton, a nationally syndicated columnist and pilot, has been flying for 33 years.
©2001. William Hamilton.