Crain's New York: New York airports need an upgrade

By William Rudin and Jonathan Tisch

Body scanners aren't the only cause of airport delays this holiday season. Here in New York, we suffer from a more fundamental problem: too much demand and too little capacity. Over 100 million passengers a year move through John F. Kennedy International, La Guardia and Newark airports, which handle a third of the nation's flights. Our airports, however, were not built to meet this demand and now rank as the worst nationally in delays. According to the Partnership for New York City, costs to the regional economy from flight delays caused by congestion at our three major airports totaled more than $2.6 billion in 2008 and will reach $79 billion by 2025.

New York has some of the world's greatest assets for attracting business, trade and tourism. But with passenger counts expected to continue climbing, we must upgrade our airports to maintain New York's status as a world-class city.

Chris Cain, an expert in European airport policy, has found that the more economically advanced a city, the greater the importance of airports. High-value activities such as banking, business services, communications, biotech, energy and media involve more air travel. Global cities are defined not just by their population and gross domestic product but by the quality and soundness of their infrastructure--including airports.

The Better Airports Alliance, a group made up of business and civic organizations focused on the metro region's airports, is reviewing various options to alleviate congestion and prepare for growth.

As part of the alliance's initiative and in consultation with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the Regional Plan Association is quantifying gains in capacity from a range of possible alternatives and will release a study, along with its recommendations, next month.

Options being evaluated include expanding runway capabilities, diverting some passengers to high-speed intercity rail and utilizing nearby airports, such as Stewart and Islip.

One suggested fix, capping the number of inbound and outbound flights at the three major airports, is short-sighted and will not bring the gains required. But the alliance is pressing for immediate deployment of updated navigation systems, known as NextGen, which are expected to result in significant operational improvements.

Upgrading facilities at JFK, La Guardia and Newark to world-class quality is an undertaking that will most likely require a long-term investment of $5 billion to $10 billion in airport infrastructure and air traffic control.

President Barack Obama has called for a substantial investment, and governments worldwide have recognized the need to enhance airport capacity and build route networks that support international-city development.

New Yorkers need to rise to the occasion and start planning for airport expansion, or--to put it bluntly--we will probably be left on the tarmac.

William Rudin is vice chairman and CEO of Rudin Management Co., and chairman of the Association for a Better New York. Jonathan Tisch is chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels.

Published: December 13, 2010 - Crain's New York Business

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