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Josh Barro

Future of high-speed travel is air, not rail

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High-speed rail, long considered the future of fast medium-distance travel, is in trouble. California’s grand plan for a statewide high-speed network is mired in cost overruns and may never be built. New Jersey has cancelled a planned tunnel under the Hudson River, which would have cleared a key bottleneck in the Northeast Corridor. Straightening out the slow, curvy rail corridor between Boston and New York would be hugely expensive and take years.

But there is another option for expanding our intercity transportation capacity at much lower cost: reform of our nation’s airports and airways. By changing the way we charge airlines to use airports, we can get a lot more travel out of the infrastructure we already have — and reduce fares and delays while we’re at it.

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Airports in New York and Chicago look full, and delays there can cascade through the system, making travelers late hundreds of miles away. Difficult as it is, building new airports doesn’t solve the fact that the airspace around big cities is crowded, too.

But the airport capacity we have is badly misused because it is mispriced. Small planes aren’t charged enough, and big planes are charged too much. As a result, airlines run lots of flights with few seats, and the skies and runways get crowded with planes.

This happens in a few ways. 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.

Also, 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.

Furthermore, 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, you have to use it — and sometimes the way airlines use all their slots is by shifting to smaller planes.

The results are absurd. Between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m on a typical Monday, there are 26 scheduled flights from the New York area to the Chicago area. That’s a flight every seven minutes — more frequent than many subway lines. Some of those flights use planes with as few as 75 seats.

The situation might not seem as dire at Logan Airport, which isn’t subject to slot controls. But Boston travelers, who suffer as delays in New York radiate outward, would still benefit greatly from reform.

Better systems for slotting and pricing would charge essentially flat fees, with only a modest upcharge by weight to account for wear and tear on runways. This would encourage airlines to operate larger planes, fewer times a day. Suddenly, “at capacity” airports like New York’s LaGuardia would be able to serve more passengers with fewer aircraft movements.

Even more air capacity can be added by modernizing our air traffic control systems. Planes can get stuck in “traffic” in the wide-open sky because controllers on the ground must move them along pre-defined routes. Air traffic control upgrades are ongoing, but they are moving slowly; repricing airport access could generate more revenue to speed up the job.

So why haven’t we done it already? One reason is that the airlines have been resistant to change. The slot system allows incumbent airlines to keep competitors out. Yet fixing all these inefficiencies won’t just help travelers; it’s also a boon to taxpayers.

The argument for high-speed rail is that we can’t squeeze more capacity out of our airports: that we need to move Boston-New York passengers onto trains so that Logan can be used for long-distance flights. But we can get more out of Logan as well as LaGuardia without spending countless billions on new infrastructure — if only we are smarter about how we price scarce space.

Josh Barro blogs about economic and fiscal issues for Bloomberg View.
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