The sky over New York city is mapped in a dense and intricate geography nearly as complicated as that of the cityscape below and this is a nightmare for New York travelers as delays affect about a third of the area's flights. The problem also ripples out to create a bigger logjam: Because so many aircraft pass through New York's airspace, three-quarters of all holdups nationwide can be traced back to that tangled swath of East Coast sky.
The problem is in a large part due to the fact that more than 2 million flights pass over the city every year with the greater bulk coming from the metropolitan area's three busiest airports: John F. Kennedy, Newark, and LaGuardia. And all that traffic squeezes through a network of aerial routes first laid out for mail planes from the 1920s but redesigned in the Expanded east coast plan during the 50s.
Though this system is safe and there haven't been any mid-air collisions over the US in 22 years, the fact that aircraft are tracked by antiquated, ground-based radar and guided by verbal instructions issued over simplex radios doesn't help matters. So a lot of space given through the troposphere (6 by 6 miles) thus now causing New York to run out of airspace.
Six years ago, congress approved a plan called "The Century of Aviation Re authorization act" which called for a system known as "NextGen." This uses GPS to create a real-time social network in the skies. In theory, it should give pilots the data they need to route themselves without the huge safety cushions. The only problem here is that NextGen requires very expensive hardware: roughly $300,000 in new avionics equipment for every cockpit which is a lot of money for struggling airlines today. Add to this, the nearly 800 new federally funded ground stations that would be needed to relay each plane's location and trajectory to every other plane in the sky and by the time NextGen finally launches in 2025 ,the price tag could reach $42 billion.
In the meantime, the New York-area skies have seen a huge traffic bump over the past two decades which including a 48 percent increase between 1994 and 2004. So the FAA has set out to coax new efficiency from old technology which is really to create a redrawn map of the roadways in the sky. While planes used to fly in and out of the city on a few packed roads, the redesign spreads out the aircraft by adding new arrival posts (exit ramps), departure gates (on-ramps), and takeoff headings (streets leading up to the intercity highways). But the biggest move will be making the space for all these additions. The proposal is to extend the boundaries of this airborne city into a 31,180-square-mile area that stretches from Philadelphia to Albany to Montauk.
The FAA started implementing the first part of the plan—the new takeoff headings—in December 2007 and should have the full strategy in place by 2012. By then the agencies hope to have reduced delays in New York by an average of three minutes per flight. And in a system as interconnected as the US air traffic network, those few minutes could quickly cascade into hours.
Anything to reduce the delays in flights around New York would be a welcomed change but I'm not sure how much of a change this would be. It was projected by the FAA that after complete implementation, there would be "a savings of 9.7 minutes for planes leaving LaGuardia and 1.3 minutes for planes arriving at Kennedy; they'll shave 7.3 and 7.1 minutes off Newark's arrivals and departures, respectively." Still, many experts have disagreed with this and have shown that even if there was time saved and more planes were delivered to New York's airspace, the runways in NY can only accept a certain amount of airplanes per hour by the laws of physics. The airports have been running at maximum acceptance for years and nothing can improve this but more runways.
Image obtained from: www.wired.com