If Hurricane Sandy proved anything, it's that when New York's three major airports are out of commission, the entire nation's air traffic network suffers. (Read more: For Travelers, Sandy's Aggravation Spans Globe)
Roughly a third of all flights in the nation fly to, from or through the New York City metropolitan area. Congestion there can lead to delays from San Francisco to Chicago to Washington, D.C. Every day, about 4,100 flights make their way within 15 miles of the Statue of Liberty.
And because the three New York area airports — LaGuardia, JFK and Newark Liberty — are so close to each other, expanding them is not a viable option. So the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is coming up with other ways to ease the congestion. One important strategy, Port Authority officials say, is adding what are known as "high-speed taxiways."
The taxiways are supposed to get airplanes to and from gates quicker. Traditional taxiways are set at sharp angles that force planes to slow down while exiting runways. The high-speed taxiways are angled more gently so that planes can exit faster. That lets planes waiting to depart from the same runways take off quicker as well.
High-speed taxiways can shave 8 seconds off a landing or departure, says Pat Foye, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
JFK alone has 600 departures and arrivals each day, Foye says. Multiply that by 8 and you save 80 minutes each day, allowing planes to move quicker and safely, he says.
"This is an example of shaving off a very small amount of time, 8 seconds in the case of each flight," Foye says. "When you've got airports as busy as ours are … over the course of the day, 80 minutes saved on the taxiways is real progress in terms of reducing air traffic delays."
JFK now has six high-speed taxiways. Another three will be added. LaGuardia has seven high-speed taxiways. Newark has four high-speed taxiways. Two more are in the process of being built. The Port Authority is studying the possibility of adding more at LaGuardia and Newark.
The taxiways are not cheap. Adding the two high-speed taxiways and rehabilitating runways at Newark will cost about $32 million.
But clearing New York's airspace is important to both passengers and airlines, Foye says.
About 10.8 million passengers passed through the three airports in August. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, in 2011, carriers took in about $18 billion in revenue to and from New York. The second most lucrative airspace in Chicago lagged far behind with $8.5 billion.
"About one-third of delays in the country are due to problems at JFK, Newark and LaGuardia," Foye says. "If you can fix air traffic delays in New York, you can do it anywhere."