National Airspace System:

Long-Term Capacity Planning Needed Despite Recent Reduction in Flight Delays

GAO-02-185: Published: Dec 14, 2001. Publicly Released: Dec 21, 2001.

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Initiatives to address flight delays include adding new runways to accommodate more aircraft and better coordinating efforts to adjust to spring and summer storms. Although most of these efforts were developed separately, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has incorporated many of them into an Operational Evolution Plan (OEP), which is designed to give more focus to these initiatives. FAA acknowledges that the plan is not intended as a final solution to congestion and delay problems. The plan focuses on initiatives that can be implemented within 10 years and generally excludes approaches lacking widespread support across stakeholder groups. The current initiatives, if successful, will add substantial capacity to the nation's air transport system. Even so, these efforts are unlikely to prevent delays from becoming worse unless the reduced traffic levels resulting from the events of September 11 persist. One key reason is that most delay-prone airports have limited ability to increase their capacity, especially by adding new runways--the main capacity-building element of OEP. The air transport system has long-term needs beyond the initiatives now under way. One initiative would add new capacity--not by adding runways to existing capacity-constrained airports, but rather by building entirely new airports or using nearby airports with available capacity. Another would manage and distribute demand within the system's existing capacity. A third would develop other modes of intercity travel, such as, but not limited to, high-speed rail where metropolitan areas are relatively close together. Because of increasing demands on the air transport system or because of the need to meet security and other concerns prompted by the recent terrorist attacks, the federal government will need to assume a central role.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2001 FAA began a series of three reports that identified congested airports, growing metropolitan regions, and potential solutions to capacity constraints that included both air traffic management and enhancements to travel capacity on a metropolitan level. An update of the study in 2004 examined capacity at 35 of the nation's largest airports, exploring the opportunities for various air traffic management technologies and physical enhancements to improve capacity.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should include, as part of the Department of Transportation's (DOT) current strategic planning for airspace capacity, an evaluation of the capacity-enhancing measures that are not in the OEP, such as building new airports, managing air traffic demand, and using other modes identified for increasing capacity. The evaluation should be done in the context of the situations or locations where such options would be most applicable considering key airport characteristics, circumstances, and expansion potential. Barriers and potential legislative actions should be delineated for each measure.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA's Benchmarks I involved visits to 20 airports, while it has also held an Operational Evolution Plan (OEP) to obtain input from other stakeholders. FAA also solicited industry comments on the OEP and its Flight Plan.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should include, as part of DOT's current strategic planning for airspace capacity, collaboration and discussions--similar to the efforts made in formulating the OEP--on prospective measures with airlines, airports, and other key players in the aviation community.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA's short-term blueprint for capacity enhancements consists of the Operational Evolution Plan (OEP) and the FAA Flight Plan. The OEP addresses a 30% increase in demand over a ten year period, while the Flight Plan, updated annually, offers a five year strategic plan that includes capacity enhancements. The long-term blueprint for national air space is being developed by the Joint Planning and Development Office.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should include, as part of DOT's current strategic planning for airspace capacity, a blueprint for effectively addressing capacity issues and reducing delays in the nation's air transport system. This blueprint, which would be a guide for future development of the system, should focus on both short-term and long-term measures needed and address the specific measures applicable for each critical location as a means for achieving a viable national system. Where necessary, this blueprint should also consider addressing aviation delay problems by using other modes of transportation, such as high-speed rail.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA's Flight Plan provides strategies, initiatives and performance targets for increasing capacity. The Air Traffic Organization ties its investment strategies and budgets to the Flight Plan, aligning its budget with ATO objectives using a strategic management process and cost benefit information. This established funding priorities for 136 programs.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should include, as part of DOT's current strategic planning for airspace capacity, an innovative investment strategy, which includes an analysis of potential incentives that the federal government can bring to bear to encourage aviation stakeholders to adopt measures identified in the blueprint. Consideration should be given to financial incentives, such as targeting more funds to certain kinds of projects or types of airports, as well as incentives that would involve modification of existing regulatory and administrative requirements, such as allowing changes in the methods of determining landing fees.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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