I’ve argued that the New York LaGuardia Central Terminal replacement won’t happen anywhere close to on schedule. There’s little question in my mind that the project will be a boondoggle.
Indeed, a week ago the project suffered another delay.
But that doesn’t mean, as an op ed in today’s New York Times suggests, that LaGuardia ought to be shuttered and air traffic sent farther outside the metropolitan area.
There are precedents for replacing airports close to the center city with modern, more outlying airports. Hong Kong and Denver are two examples; Berlin will soon follow suit.
Denver is a disaster and the Berlin airport project shouldn’t be held up as a model for anything. But the article is insightful, mostly for what it misses and reveals about the transportation planning mind.
Value of Convenience
The argument is that LaGuardia is convenient but convenience isn’t important.
The popularity of La Guardia, which serves nearly 30 million passengers a year, is almost entirely related to proximity — a typical nine-mile trip to Midtown Manhattan can be done in about 20 minutes during off-peak hours, 10 to 30 minutes less than it would take to get to Kennedy or Newark.
Dismissing the convenience and time savings of proximity, as though it’s unimportant (‘the only reason the airport is popular is because it’s close’) is a true rhetorical sleight of hand. LaGuardia is better for passengers from much of Manhattan because it’s close. That’s a major benefit.
The 30 million passengers figure cited counts both arrivals and departures. If each saves 20 minutes, that’s 600 million minutes per year or 10 million hours. At $50 per hour for the average domestic airline passenger, that’s half a billion dollars a year in time value savings. For the average user of LaGuardia the hourly wage is likely to be higher.
Close-in Airports Are Unpopular With Neighborhoods
The piece suggests that noise levels by LaGuardia are too high. But construction began on the airport in 1937, and planes are quieter than they used to be. What’s more, homes near the airport are more affordable precisely because of their proximity to the airport. While shutting down operations might be a windfall for current property owners, the existence of the airport is hardly unfair to them — and eliminating the airport could lead to gentrification and less affordable housing.
Somehow Congestion in New York Airspace is Because of the Airport?
We’re supposed to believe that we don’t need the airport’s capacity, that the number of passengers and the frequency of flights that clog airspace is because New York has three primary airports.
With the consolidation of the major United States airlines and the sluggishness in the global economy, the much larger Kennedy and Newark airports could accommodate La Guardia’s passenger load, by adding more frequent service and using larger aircraft, if the F.A.A. were to lift the caps on the number of flights allowed there.
..Most flights serving La Guardia already duplicate flights that serve Kennedy and Newark. Many of these flights are to a relatively small number of regional hubs. Average loads per flight at La Guardia are only two-thirds those at Kennedy. Small regional jets, with fewer than 100 seats per plane, make up a little more than half of La Guardia’s peak-period flights. Airline efficiency would be improved by concentrating traffic on fewer, larger aircraft, while still maintaining service to major hubs.
Suggesting that New York JFK and Newark aren’t themselves crowded and subject to delays is a strange position to take. If the FAA lifted slot restrictions at JFK then JFK would be permitted to offer more peak afternoon and evening departures, but those restrictions aren’t in place arbitrarily, there really are capacity constraints not just at the airport but also the airspace. And the size of aircraft operating — the small planes and high frequencies — exist for a reason as well. They serve smaller markets, and they offer greater flexibility and convenience to passengers to fly when they wish. That’s economic value, again because wasted travel time is an economic cost.
Of course LaGuardia has limited operations and doesn’t serve long distance destinations with larger aircraft precisely because of the legal restrictions that are placed on it. While true that it’s difficult to expand the airport’s footprint for more and longer runways that’s again a function of planning process as much as anything else.
Peering into the Planner’s Mind
The author claims it’s too costly to renovate LaGuardia or improve public transportation options, yet prefers to see airports like Newburgh Stewart get more use (“Stewart, over 60 miles north of Midtown, in Orange County, N.Y., has significant room for expansion and can accommodate long overseas flights…”). It’s 60 miles from the city. Extending public transportation would be mind blowingly expensive.
Yet somehow international flights should land there (oddly, this case is made right after arguing that Newark and JFK could pick up LaGuardia’s slack).
Airlines fly to close-in airports for a reason. Passengers want to fly to close-in airports for a reason. Those reasons do not seem to count in the mind of the planner, who argues for more money to build out public transit to Newark as well. (Time for the author to ask for his flight in return for this advocacy?)