Cautionary Tale of Congestion Pricing

With Christmas and winter weather fast approaching, most Americans are anticipating a holiday with friends and family. Many, however, are also bracing for the inevitable travel crush.

It’s peak season, and for air travelers, fears of delay and cancelations are none too real. So much so that President Bush and Transportation Secretary Mary Peters pre-emptively announced new plans to ease congestion. Barring inclement weather, these measures should keep passengers moving and ease the burden at the nation’s busiest airports.

But the Thanksgiving fix fell far short from providing much needed long-term relief for air traffic congestion. All too often, passengers sat on the runway or at the gate with nowhere to go. This past summer alone there were nearly 8 million minutes in delays.

For Thanksgiving, a number of initiatives were announced — from temporarily opening military airspace, to increasing required airline compensations to passengers involuntarily bumped, to better procedures for delayed flights. But a much more fundamental examination of air traffic management is required for the long run.

The record delays and cancelations of 2007 are partly due to increasing demand for air travel, but also due to outdated air traffic management technologies and procedures. Airspace around New York is most problematic, responsible for 44 percent of passenger minutes lost. These delays ripple through the entire nation, leading Transportation Secretary Peters to target future efforts here. Special emphasis is given Kennedy International Airport, where traffic is up 23 percent and arrival delays of more than an hour have increased 14 percent over the previous year.

One popular proposal among federal officials is the use of “congestion pricing,” which would provide incentives for air carriers to take advantage of lower off-peak prices — the higher the congestion fee, the greater the incentive. At some price, passengers will simply stop flying to New York. But the goal should not be to simply reduce the number of users in the system; policymakers must focus on moving travelers through the airspace more efficiently, especially given the importance of New York both as a destination and as a trans-Atlantic gateway.

Under ideal conditions, congestion pricing may spread flights more efficiently across the day. However, implementing congestion pricing is a political and practical minefield. Not all users pay the same price for landing at congested airports. Some fees are based on weight or size, and some are exclusive to air carriers versus general aviation, or corporate jets.

For a congestion price to be efficient, all users must see the same prices for the use of scarce airspace. Yet congestion prices are typically discussed only in terms of the larger air carriers, with exemptions for smaller aircraft, such as general aviation.

In fact, there is even a question concerning the authority to impose such fees on foreign air carriers. And in today’s hub-and-spoke system, congestion pricing may clear the skies, but at the expense of having passengers who fly off-peak waiting longer at the airport before boarding their next flight.

An interim measure — if true congestion fees are not realistically feasible — may be to rely on airline scheduling agreements, with a secondary market that allows airlines to buy and sell landing slots.

Airlines would come to voluntary agreements to more evenly space their flights, subject to FAA approval. Schedule slots then could be exchanged in an aftermarket. Similar practices are used by other nations. Coupled with appropriate protections to allow new entrants, this would allocate airspace more efficiently.

Over the longer term, capacity must be improved through better technologies and airspace management.

The United States relies predominantly on technologies and procedures developed more than 50 years ago, creating capacity constraints that lead to delays and frustrated passengers. The system is in the early stages of a transition from radar-based traffic control to GPS-based traffic control that will be a marked improvement. At the same time the first redesign of the region’s airspace since the 1960s — which will cut congestion 20 percent — has yet to be carried out. For political reasons, unfortunately, progress has been slow, leaving travelers to bear the costs of delays and cancelations under the current system.

No one enjoys sitting in an overcrowded gate or being stranded on a runway, so it is laudable that the administration has taken steps to improve holiday travels. But Thanksgiving comes every year, as does Christmas and the summer holidays. More fundamental issues of artificial capacity constraints imposed by outdated technologies and procedures must be addressed to ensure happy travels for the years to come.

Wayne Brough is chief economist and vice president for research at FreedomWorks.