Travelin’ (Jet) Blues

JetBlue CEO David Neeleman issued a mea culpa yesterday in an attempt to explain why hundreds of JetBlue passengers were stuck in nine of their planes on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy International Airport for six hours last week.  He partly blamed a “shoestring communications system” that was insufficient to assist airline managers during the confusion caused by a massive ice storm.

That’s not the whole story, although you wouldn’t know if from reading most news reports of the incident.  It turns out that Federal Aviation Administration regulations had a role, too.  The FAA presides over a system of rules that virtually guarantees flight delays by encouraging pilots to stay on the tarmac instead of losing their place in the take-off queue.

As Scott McCartney of the Wall Street Journal reports today (subscription required):

Part of the problem is that airlines, pilots and often passengers are reluctant to throw in the towel. Planes wait in line hoping for a break in the weather. And wait. And wait …

The FAA’s air-traffic-control system can penalize flights that go back to a gate, even for a temporary bathroom break. Air-traffic controllers generally take flights first-come, first-serve, unless the airline can badger officials into giving a flight higher priority, or trade places in line with another of its own flights.

Indeed, last month a JetBlue flight ended up on the ground for eight hours at JFK because it returned to the gate and then was required to file a new flight plan, the FAA says.

It’s enough to make you wonder if there is a better way to allocate take-off and landing slots at our nations airports.  And, indeed, there is.  Nobel economist Vernon Smith has proposed an auction system that, like the stock market, would allocate scarce resources – like the use of a runway – much more efficiently than current practices.

As Smith explains in a 2002 interview with Reason magazine:

We’re doing work on creating a market for the exchange of landing and takeoff slots at airports. In normal circumstances, those rights have been fully allocated among the airlines at a given airport. But let’s say a bad weather front moves in, so there’s a ground delay. They’ve been doing maybe 60 landings and takeoffs per hour, but now they’ve got to reduce that to 30. What airports tend to do is just stretch out the existing schedule, which leads to cancellations and other problems. What you need is a market mechanism so that the flights that have higher priority get out. What would be a higher priority? Bigger planes, probably, but also full planes and planes with a lot of passengers who have connecting flights.

Suppose we’re talking about planes leaving LaGuardia in New York. If a plane’s going to Los Angeles, it’s probably the final destination for a lot of the passengers. Planes going to Chicago or Dallas probably have a lot of passengers who are catching connecting flights. Maybe those flights should have a higher takeoff priority in bad weather. In any case, you need a market mechanism where the airlines can compensate one another-and their passengers-to cancel their flights and trade takeoff slots.

The power of market forces unleashed by federal deregulation of the airlines has put air travel – once a luxury – within the reach of virtually everybody. Now perhaps it’s finally time to deregulate the act of actually taking off.