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So many planes, so little time

Empty seats on a plane

TEXT OF STORY

Scott Jagow: It'll be interesting to see whether people start pushing back against the airlines. Just before this holiday weekend, the big carriers raised ticket prices again, for the 11th time this year. American is gonna charge people to check their first bag -- and other airlines may follow suit. And US Airways says its doing away with the pretzels, starting next weekend.

All that, and you can't even get where you're going on time. Americans wasted 320 million hours last year on flight delays. That cost the economy something like $40 billion, according to one estimate, and that has caught the attention of Congress. Alisa Roth tells us what might be done.


Alisa Roth: Fly on a Monday morning or a Friday afternoon -- or, heaven forbid, on a holiday weekend -- and you know exactly what the problem is:

Roger King: The real issue is planes being scheduled to take off and land when there's not enough time or space to do it.

Roger King is an airline industry analyst. He says there are so many planes and so little airport infrastructure that the options for fixing the problems are actually pretty limited. One possibility is better use of GPS.

King: There'd be greater certainty as to where each plane is, and therefore you could fly them closer together.

There's also talk of expanding smaller airports to take pressure off the big ones. But really, King says, the best option is for the government to limit the number of flights.

King: If they would restrict the number of take-offs and landings, it would result in higher fares and it would also probably prompt the airlines over time to put bigger airplanes in each landing.

That could work for the airplanes. A bigger plane costs more to fly than a smaller one, but per seat it's actually cheaper.

In New York, I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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"Detachable cabins" is a cute concept but isn't really practical. There'd be no way to do it without a significant increase in aircraft weight, and that would drive the per-seat cost up in direct proportion to fuel prices. Boeing's 787 is pre-selling so well -- in spite of delays -- precisely because it is using many weight-saving techniques (such as composite materials) to promise lower per-seat costs.

No, what we have here is a classic tragedy of the commons. Because an airline that offers more flights between any two city pairs is more likely to capture a passenger looking to fly at any particular time between those cities (price being equal, and competition ensures it usually is), there’s a strong incentive for airlines to schedule as many flights as possible between popular cities. But when all the competing airlines do that you end up with more flights than the airports can accommodate. Like cod fishing in the Atlantic, everybody takes as much as they can until the entire system collapses. Meanwhile, we fish get crammed tighter and tighter into our aluminum cans.

Fortunately, in this situation the fish have a voice. Unfortunately, the mouthpiece is the FAA, which has the dual responsibilities of promoting both safety and commerce in aviation. This doesn’t affect safety, and more flights are what both the airlines and passengers want, so they haven’t intervened. Gridlock is just an unintended consequence.

The free market solution, I suppose, would be for the airlines to build more airports. Clearly, that isn’t going to happen. And it’s foolish to talk about a free market in what is in many ways a heavily-regulated industry anyway. Given that airports are public-funded entities (and they are, despite any whining you might hear from the airlines about landing fees) that offer a limited resource, the obvious solution (as mentioned in the story) is to further limit gate slots until systemic order is restored. The airlines won’t be able to offer as many flights, but they’ll be able to employ larger jets, which is actually cheaper for them. Passengers lose the nominal convenience of more frequent flights, but that’s a mirage anyway: there’s no convenience to multiple flights each of which is sitting on the ground stacked up behind the next, and actually getting to your destination on time is far more convenient than being able to choose between flights 20 minutes apart. And bigger, more efficient jets should cause ticket prices to not increase as fast as they otherwise would due to fuel prices. It’s a win for everybody, but it requires a public policy act of will.

And if you do want a free market solution that operates in the context of the current system, just auction takeoff/landing slots:

http://www.knowledgeproblem.com/archives/000700.html

Has anybody thought on detachable cabins? That way you could reduce staging time on the aircraft since all passengers and cargo would be ready to go at the time the aircraft lands.

Three Major Airport's in North East causes all the delays in US. LGA, EWR and PHL are the worst. Any 30 mins weather impacts on a day causes the three airports to backup for delays. Government needs to reduce the incoming and ougoing flight. Then all the flights in US shall be on time.

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