FAA benchmarks airport capacity

The FAA's Airport Capacity Benchmarks study

Data that the Federal Aviation Administration released Wednesday about capacity at the nation's 31 busiest airports confirmed many of the assumptions the FAA, passengers, airlines, airport managers and Congress have already made about air traffic congestion.

That includes the finding that new technologies and procedures will increase capacity an average of 5 percent by 2010, but new runways could increase capacity 30 percent to 60 percent.

The FAA's capacity benchmarks for the top 31 U.S. airports focused on the runway capacity — or the number of takeoffs and landings per hour — that can be handled safely during good weather and bad weather when radar is required to help air traffic controllers maintain safe separation between aircraft.

The benchmarks are one tool to aid discussions of how to improve efficiency, FAA Administrator Jane Garvey said at a hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Aviation Subcommittee.

The benchmarks, which showed that eight airports had 3 percent or more of their landings or takeoffs delayed more than 15 minutes, were determined in three ways, Garvey said. First, air traffic controllers and managers from each airport provided capacity numbers based on their experiences. Then, those rates were compared to past arrival and departure data to confirm that they represented optimal performance at the airport.

Finally, the rates were calculated using an FAA airfield capacity computer model. Using the computer model, the FAA inserted information about improvements expected 10 years in the future, such as the effects of new runways, where they are planned and new air traffic control technologies for ground surveillance and decision-making.

For instance, at New York's LaGuardia Airport, which was the most delayed airport in the United States in 2000, demand is forecast to grow by 17 percent in the next 10 years. No airport construction is planned, but the FAA anticipates that procedural, airspace and technology improvements will improve capacity by about 10 percent in good weather and 3 percent in bad weather.

The technology includes Free Flight technologies to increase terminal airspace capacity as well as avionics improvements that will use satellite-based systems to increase situational awareness of aircraft on the ground.

"In the long term, we have several ways to increase overall aviation capacity: first, through the construction of new runways; second, the adoption of new air traffic control procedures; and third, by development and deployment of new technology," said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee. "All of these remedies will take time."

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