NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Future of High-Speed Travel Is Air, Not Rail

July 9, 2012

One argument for high-speed rail is that we can't squeeze more capacity out of our airports: for example, we need to move Boston-New York passengers onto trains so that Boston's Logan Airport can be used for long-distance flights. But we can get more out of Logan, as well as LaGuardia and other airports, without spending countless billions on new infrastructure -- if only we are smarter about how we price scarce airspace, says Josh Barro of Bloomberg View.

A number of current policies discourage airlines from performing effectively and hamper efforts to increase airport volume.

  • First, airports generally set take-off and landing fees by weight: a plane with four times as many seats pays about four times as much to take off -- even though it doesn't spend four times as long on the runway.
  • Second, the Federal Aviation Administration charges air traffic control fees based on weight, meaning that a small plane pays less for guidance -- even though it costs just as much to monitor.
  • These weight-based pricing rules even apply to private jets, which take up valuable runway space at busy airports and pay only a fraction of what a commercial jet would pay to take off and land.
  • In total, these weight-based charges discourage airlines from using planes with more seating, and the natural result is that there are 26 scheduled flights from the New York area to the Chicago area between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. on a typical Monday.
  • Fixing these policies would encourage fewer, higher volume flights, resulting in augmented efficiency.

Furthermore, the Department of Transportation's policies regarding airport slots are a substantial drag on airports reaching optimal passenger volume.

  • At some of the busiest airports, the Department of Transportation restricts the number of commercial flights by assigning slots to different airlines.
  • This is a necessary practice, but it encourages airlines to hoard slots.
  • To keep a slot, it has to be used, and sometimes the way airlines use all their slots is by shifting to smaller planes with less volume.

If policymakers can implement new policies that allow for more efficient use of scarce air infrastructure, "at capacity" airports will be able to handle greater volume. This change would preclude the need for grossly expensive investments in rail.

Source: Josh Barro, "Future of High-Speed Travel Is Air, Not Rail," Boston Globe, June 25, 2012.

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