[Editor's note: Maps show off the poor network topology for air traffic in and out of New York city and how to optimize the system to reduce flight delays across the US.]
By Andrew Blum 02.23.09
Two million flights pass through the New York area airspace each year.
Illustration: Aaron Koblin
Inbound JFK. The turns start while you’re still in the clouds. Engines howling, flaps down, the plane lurches and dives, jerky as a taxi in Midtown. Seatback upright and tray table locked, you’re oblivious to the crowded flight paths around you. But the air above New York City is mapped: a dense and nuanced geography nearly as complicated as the city below.
More than 2 million flights pass over the city every year, most traveling to and 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 the mail planes of the 1920s. Aircraft are tracked by antiquated, ground-based radar and guided by verbal instructions issued over simplex radios, technology that predates the pocket calculator. The system is extremely safe—no commercial flight has been in a midair collision over the US in 22 years—but, because the Federal Aviation Administration treats each plane as if it were a 2,000-foot-tall, 6- by 6-mile block lumbering through the troposphere, New York is running out of air.
This is a nightmare for New York travelers; 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.
Six years ago, Congress green-lit a plan to solve this problem. The Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act calls for a new system, dubbed NextGen, that uses GPS to create a sort of real-time social network in the skies. In theory, it should give pilots the data they need to route themselves—minus the huge safety cushions.
But NextGen needs some serious hardware: roughly $300,000 in new avionics equipment for every cockpit. That’s a lot of peanuts for the struggling airlines. Add to the tab nearly 800 new federally funded ground stations 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.
Jetliner Photos: Jeffrey Milstein
In the meantime, the New York-area skies have seen a huge traffic bump over the past two decades—including a 48 percent increase between 1994 and 2004. So the FAA has set out to coax new efficiency from old technology.
To help reorganize this airspace, the FAA called on Mitre, a Beltway R&D firm that works exclusively for the government. Mitre’s scientists and mathematicians, in cooperation with some of the region’s air traffic controllers, are completely rethinking the flow of aircraft in and out of New York City. Current flight patterns evolved like a rabbit warren, with additions tacked on to an existing architecture. As airports grew busier and airplanes started flying higher and faster, that architecture became increasingly inefficient. The plan, the unfortunately named New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia Metropolitan Area Airspace Redesign, aims to bring order to the air.
Think of it as a redrawn map of the roadways in the sky. While planes used to chug 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. Mitre’s 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.
Unclogging the Skies
A new FAA plan—the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia Metropolitan Area Airspace Redesign—aims to streamline the air traffic over New York. Here are two highlights.
Flights heading west out of New York have to squeeze onto two airborne highways over New Jersey before they merge with air traffic from the rest of the country. The redesign adds more lanes, allowing more planes to take off per hour.
The New York regional air traffic control center is the busiest in the world. The redesign integrates its authority with other regional centers so controllers can direct planes that are farther away, clearing the high-altitude flight paths for through-traffic
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.
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