The proposed 3rd runway would lay pavement parallel to the existing runway 13/31, northeast to southeast over the East River.
Now with the blessing of Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York City is one step closer toward closing Rikers Island, the infamous prison that has had a history of trouble; as far as correctional facilities can go. The 148-page document, presented by the Speaker of the City Council Melissa Mark-Viverito, explains not only its reasons for the intended closure, but the more alluring idea of LaGuardia Airport expansion.
The scorn of almost 30 million travelers annually, LaGuardia Airport’s reputation as a third world airport, and running a dynasty of leading other airports in delays while also rating poor passenger experience within the terminals, leave many clamoring for solutions. While it is easy to excite people with design concepts that cater to those needs, clarification is important, not only what these concepts can and cannot accomplish, but also what their true goals are in doing so.
The Capacity Issue
Though the additional section of land could certainly be of great use to LaGuardia Airport for the purposes of ground (rail) transportation or taxiway and aircraft parking areas, much of the idea presented revolves around the addition of a 3rd runway. The mention of a 3rd runway starts with the claim that “a new runway could expand flight capacity at LaGuardia by 40 percent.” Though the report acknowledges the issue of delays and briefly offers a claim of easement, it offers no supportive evidence.
The report forecasts that current airport capacity issues would prevent New York City’s ability to serve an additional 40 million passengers wanting to fly to the city by 2030. The “capacity issue” references the rate and amount of aircraft that the airports can receive. This is often measured on an hourly basis, on assumed and hoped-for runway configurations based on average weather. Through a normal weekday, LaGuardia’s schedule of flights sits at capacity nearly every single hour, so any deviation from that desired runway configuration makes the airport significantly vulnerable to delays.
So why is it misleading that a new runway would help? This is because, though a good runway layout can certainly assist in the flow of traffic in and out of an airfield, the biggest factor affecting LaGuardia’s capacity and delays is actually not related to anything on the land, but in the airspace above it.
The tangled web of NYC airspace, 4 airports vying for the sky.
Among the busiest airspace in the world, LaGuardia sits in a triangle, 10 miles away from two other major airports, JFK International and Newark Liberty International, as well as New Jersey’s corporate jet powerhouse, Teterboro Airport. All of whom must work in tandem through this airspace, meaning that a wind direction’s effect on one airport’s runway configuration will force its fellow airports into their own specific runway configurations. When the required configuration is less than optimal, the hourly arrival capacity will drop well below the scheduled number of flights for that time period, creating those loathsome delays.
With airspace being the primary cause for the delays, building more runways alone would not bring about the change that is needed to solve them. Runways only send aircraft into the air, but if there is no room for those aircraft to go, what problem is it solving? If New York City airspace was a highway that experienced bumper-to-bumper traffic, the third runway solution would be akin to just building more on-ramps into the traffic.
Health and Safety
Noise is also an incredibly significant component to be considered, which truly can have an effect on a person’s health. The report acknowledges this, showing a noise impact diagram (page 104) for LaGuardia’s present runway layout. Currently, LaGuardia generates a significant amount of public outcry with regard to noise, even though most of the impact shown has the affected areas over water, or industrialized areas. However, the placement of the third runway would run it diagonally on Rikers Island, parallel to the existing northwest-southeast runway. Even by looking at their own noise impact map, shifting this would deliver very significant noise impacts to residential areas of western College Point and the South Bronx.
Noise Impact diagram, as provided in the report, page 104.
More importantly, any potential capacity may be affected after undergoing scrutiny from the FAA on a number of possible regulatory issues that pertain to safety. The FAA may object to the small lateral distance between the two parallel runways’ ability to support concurrent operations, plus their separation with regard to avoiding other local airport’s space after departure. Another issue to consider is if a go around (aborted landing) on the new runway would put aircraft precariously into the path of a flight departing the perpendicular runway.
For consideration would also be whether or not aircraft departing the new runway in either direction would be able to clear obstacles on the ground in the unlikely event of an engine loss on takeoff — math of which is done to ensure safety before every single flight’s departure.
The length of LaGuardia’s current runways often come into question, even though there has only been 3 overruns at the airport in the last half century. Though two of them were considered to be quite minor, none were actually related to its length, while nearby JFK Airport with much longer runways has a larger record of overruns. Similar to obstacle clearance, various safety measures in terms of pre-flight calculations allow aircraft to operate easily within the available length (which is similar to many more airports than many people imply), and “arrestor beds” that would catch overrunning aircraft are now in place at the ends of all runways to prevent significant mishaps. Also of relevance is that a third runway would end up being just as long as the existing two.
Supply and Demand
The FAA’s NextGen, though slow in implementation, is a nationwide airspace redesign program built to improve safety and efficiency. Partially in place already, it is expected to have a positive impact on aircraft separation that would allow for more flights to safely depart and arrive into airspace like that of New York City’s. Even without an additional runway, improved capacity at all 3 local airports has already been creeping its way in and should continue to improve over the coming years (pending Congressional funding approval or possible dismantling of the FAA by the Executive Branch).
As emphasized in the report, the goal is to improve capacity, more so for the expected passenger demand in years to come. Whether it be by a third runway or through NextGen, almost any freed up capacity at LaGuardia will likely be spent on more flights to meet the growing demand for air travel, not the delay reduction that many are hoping for.
As much as this may sound like a political “switcheroo” to trick you, the ability to meet the demands of air travel with increased flight capacity is what allows the airline industry to charge the fares that they do. Believe it or not, when adjusted for inflation, ticket prices are exponentially less expensive than in decades past.
Time — You Ain’t No Friend of Mine
Though the reality is that LaGuardia may not be out of the woods with airport delays any time soon, hopefully it may be of some consolation that the current reconstruction of the airport should significantly improve the passenger experience for those times that you are delayed, and cater to the handling of aircraft while stuck on the ground as well.
The plan to close Rikers Island would be at least 10 years, with construction of any chosen option for its use to be another 5 years beyond that. This proposal is filled with suggestion with many details needing to be worked out, but if these details are not cemented with all factors considered in the coming months, the ability to possibly combine intentions with the existing reconstruction of LaGuardia to make the most efficient airport possible will be lost. From there, expansion of Rikers Island for LaGuardia may well end up being a sloppy add-on, which is the type of construction that led to the airport’s dismal terminal system over the last 75 years to begin with.
Artist rendition of the proposed airport redesign that includes usage of Rikers Island.
Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has aviation experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. He owns and operates NYCAviation and performs duties as an aviation expert through writing, consulting, public speaking and media appearances. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.
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