Mad About the Quality of Air Travel These Days? Blame Environmentalists, by John Carlisle

The next time you find yourself stuck in an airport waiting for a flight that is hours overdue or wonder why it seems to take forever for your plane to land although the airport is clearly in sight: Blame the environmental movement.

Overly restrictive environmental regulations are significantly contributing to airline delays and cancellations by inhibiting the timely construction of much-needed runways.

Runways are as important to relieving air travel congestion as highways are to reducing auto traffic. But it often takes 10 years or more to plan and build a new runway, primarily because of cumbersome environmental permitting requirements. Although it only takes two years to actually construct a major runway, before commencing construction airport authorities must first meet time-consuming environmental regulations mandated by federal and state laws governing air and water quality, endangered species, historical preservation, noise abatement, solid waste impacts, coastal zone management and other environmental concerns.1

Environmental regulations are a major reason why, since 1978, only two new major metropolitan airports have been constructed even though the number of passengers flying annually rose from 250 million in 1978 to 600 million in 1999.2 Airline departures increased 25% during the 1990s, but only six new runways were added at large hub airports during the same period.3

The efficiency and comfort that customers rightly expect from air travel is seriously eroding as a result of so many jets competing for a limited amount of runway space and gates. Between 1995 and 2000, airline cancellations jumped 104% while departure and arrival delays increased 33%. The average late flight arrived 52 minutes late. Not surprisingly, customer complaints are also on the rise. Last year, the number of complaints, mainly about cancellations, delays and missed connections, increased 14% compared with 1999.4

If action is not taken immediately to expedite new airport and runway construction, consumer dissatisfaction with airline travel will get worse. The number of airline passengers is projected to increase 60% to 1 billion in 2010.5

Leading government officials, aviation experts and airline pilots agree that building runways is vital to relieving congestion. New Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said at his confirmation hearing that he favors speeding airport and runway construction, specifically recommending that state and federal environmental approvals be done simultaneously, not sequentially. Mineta said that government should “try to do things to shorten the time span so we don’t go through [these kinds] of multiple planning requirements.” The Bush Administration’s view on expedited runway construction is supported by a General Accounting Office study for Congress which found many overlapping state and federal environmental requirements and duplicative federal requirements that needlessly delay runway construction.6

Airline pilots also cite the lack of runways as their biggest headache. In a letter to The Wall Street Journal, a pilot with a major U.S. air carrier wrote, “it is obvious to me every day that the problem is not a lack of airspace, but a lack of ground space… Want your flight to leave on time? Tell your local airport authority to build more runways.”7 Says John Mazor of the Air Line Pilots Association: “Every one of those airplanes that’s up in the sky had to have an airport and piece of concrete to take off from and he’s got to have another airport and another piece of concrete to land on… We just can’t get around the fact that we must build more airports and runways at a much greater rate than we have over the past two or three decades.”8

One group of people, however, that refuses to accept the need for new runways is environmentalists. They argue that there are alternatives to runways. David Lewis of Save San Francisco Bay, an environmental group fighting the proposed addition of runways at San Francisco International Airport, says that new flight approach procedures, improved radar, new air traffic control software and other technological improvements “could slash delays sooner, more cheaply and with much lower impact” than new runways.9 While air traffic modernization is laudable and should be pursued, experts say that technological improvements cannot, by themselves, relieve congestion. Steven Brown, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) head of air traffic services, says that modernization would add three to five takeoffs and landings per hour at a typical major airport. A new runway, however, would allow 30 to 40 additional landings and takeoffs per hour.10

But environmental activists ignore the need for runways, and persist in thwarting efforts to expand capacity at severely-overcrowded airports.

Virginia Buckingham, director of Massport, which runs Boston’s Logan Airport, says that the multiple regulatory requirements give local governments and activists numerous opportunities to drag out the approval process for a new runway. For five years, Logan Airport has been trying to get approval for a commuter plane runway. Although the state government supports it, the city government does not.11

San Francisco International Airport, the nation’s fifth worst airport in flight delays, is in special need of a new runway.12 Last year, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown promised to form a task force to “speed up the process” for building runways at the airport. Yet, environmental activists are fighting these efforts. Lewis of Save San Francisco Bay criticized the mayor’s position, saying that he should instead “win more funding and research for new air traffic and radar technologies.”13 Even though FAA experts have already stated that new technologies cannot alleviate congestion without additional runways, Lewis threatened to file a lawsuit if the FAA did not consider those technological improvements anyway. Lynne Pickard of the FAA’s Office of Airport Planning and Programming said the best solution to San Francisco’s congestion problems is to streamline the process to expedite the permitting for the proposed runway. Pickard says the goal of streamlining isn’t to skirt environmental laws but to “get the same outcome in less time.” Nevertheless, Rich Gordon, a San Mateo County supervisor who opposes the runway said any attempt to streamline the environmental review process would draw a lawsuit.14

In the meantime, San Francisco International Airport is increasingly unable to meet the demand for air travel. In January 2001, Southwest Airlines announced it was halting operations at the airport because so many of its flights were delayed.15

Jack Saporito, Executive Director of the Alliance of Residents Concerning O’Hare, is lobbying against efforts to expand Chicago’s O’Hare airport, the nation’s second worst in flight delays.16 Citing alleged health problems suffered by people living near airports, Saporito wants a moratorium on expanding the air traffic system. He prefers that all the money now being spent on airport expansion should go to developing mass transit, the least preferred form of transportation in the U.S.17

Nearly six years ago, Seattle officials decided to build a new runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Seattle-Tacoma is also ranked high on the list of flight delays.18 However, even though polls show that most people in the area support airport expansion, construction of the runway has still not begun because of opposition from a small number of local activists. Former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice is so exasperated with the delays in building the much-needed runway that he published an article in the Seattle Times castigating the activists and bureaucrats who drag out the permitting process. “An extremely vocal minority continues to look for every opportunity to stop or delay the new runway,” says Rice. “Compounding the problem are regulatory agencies responsible for permitting the project that are far more concerned with process than in protecting the public interest.”19

Given the widespread agreement among FAA experts, the Bush Administration, Congress, pilots and local politicians about the urgent need for new runway construction, one wonders why there is a controversy at all. But environmentalists, often deficient on their facts but always efficient in pushing their politics, are impervious to the need for runways to relieve air traffic congestion and continue to thwart construction efforts.

So the next time you find yourself sitting in a plane fuming about the delays in reaching your destination, you know who to blame.


John K. Carlisle is director of The National Center for Public Policy Research’s Environmental Policy Task Force. 


1 Richard Alonso-Zaldivar, “U.S. Backs New Jet Runways to Ease Delays,” The Los Angeles Times, February 1, 2001.
2 David Morgan, “The Big Fix: The Pros and Cons of Options to Cut Flight Delays,”, February 12, 2001.
3 Alonso-Zaldivar.
4 Keith Alexander, “Airlines Told to Try Harder,” The Washington Post, February 13, 2001.
5 Morgan.
6 Alonso-Zaldivar.
7 Greg Ross, “What Airlines Need is a Place to Park,” The Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2001.
8 Morgan.
9 David Lewis, “Alternatives to New SFO Runways,” San Francisco Examiner, April 3, 2000.
10 Alonso-Zaldivar.
11 Ibid.
12 David Morgan, “N.Y. Airport Tops FAA List for Air Delays,”, January 31, 2001.
13 Lewis.
14 Marshall Wilson, “Plan for SFO Runways Penned,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 8, 2001.
15 “Untangle the Crowded Skies,” Editorial, The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2001.
16 Morgan, “N.Y. Airport Tops FAA List for Air Delays.”
17 Morgan, “The Big Fix.”
18 Morgan, “N.Y. Airport Tops FAA List for Air Delays.”
19 Norm Rice, “A Runway Paved With Obstruction,” Seattle Times, August 16, 2000.

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