What I learned this week: Airport Runway Capacity

Over the past year, I have flown to and from New York 7 times. That doesn’t seem like a very large number unless, like me, you prefer the comforts of home and Electric Hero subs from a few blocks away.

Being in Grand Rapids, my direct flight options are a little bit limited. Specifically I can go to Newark, or I can go to LaGuardia. Or I can do a multi-leg journey to JFK. Since interviewing at Arkus, I’ve chosen LGA every time except one time going to Newark and questioning my life choices the entire time.

LaGuardia has been undergoing MASSIVE reconstruction since I started flying out there in 2016, and it has made traveling through the place a greater headache each time. If the standard traffic weren’t enough, you now have to compete against road closures, construction zones, and entire areas of the airport being suddenly inaccessible after they were there two months ago. Keeps me on my toes, that’s for sure.

On my last visit, I couldn’t help but wonder, sitting at a standstill in a line of cars, waiting to exit the airport grounds, and looking at brightly colored signs happily declaring that “a better LaGuardia is coming!” just how long this could possible go on. What sort of purgatory are collectively experiencing? So I Googled it, and apparently I’m not the first one to do this, since the suggestion was immediate.

2022. By the way. 

The part that intrigued me…that’s not fair. It was actually fascinating. The original airport was built in the 1920s, which blew my mind because…did Queens need an airport then? Apparently. The next terminal was built in the 60s, then then 80s, and finally the 90s, and so they ended up with this Tetris kind of place. Not the point.

The part that REALLY piqued my interest was a line toward the end that they are going to add 2 miles of runway, which will help increase the airport’s capacity and decrease some of the issues they have with delays. (Did I mention that I read this while my flight was delayed by over an hour? Yeah. So at least I could understand the root cause.)

What does that have to do with anything, though? How would two miles really have an impact?

As it turns out, this is a Thing. Like an FAA thing. They produce semi-regular Airport Capacity Profiles (last updated in 2014) that determine, based on things like runway space and layout, just how many flights any given airport has actual capacity for. Specifically these reports identify the maximum capacity within a single hour of operation. These overall capacity reports are then broken down by things like weather conditions (visual, marginal, and instrument), realistic operational conditions, and even external factors that may have improved capacity since the last overview.

And you bet they have one for LaGuardia. I read it. But it didn’t quite explain how the two miles of runway would improve performance, so I had to keep looking.

Did you know StackExchange has a whole Aviation subdomain?

LaGuardia currently operates 22 arrival runways and 13 departure runways. Adding two miles of space to increase the number could have a positive effect on the capacity of the airport, but adding runways alone does not solve the problem. For instance, depending on the layout of the runways – parallel or perpendicular – you may have better capacity when the weather is cooperating (parallel) or more options and better sustained capacity when weather is less than ideal (perpendicular).

The mix of aircraft sizes could have an impact. If a very large, heavy aircraft lands, it produces more wake turbulence than a smaller craft, so having a larger variety could mean smaller planes have to wait longer.

The sequencing of arrivals and departures – how many planes are arriving vs. leaving? Will we have room for them? Better get that right.

Sequencing across airports – LaGuardia is in what’s considered the NY/NY/PHL airspace, which supports flights to LGA, JFK, EWR, and PHL. And as it turns out, big freaking flying machines need room to maneuver, so it’s not just the flights into and out of LaGuardia that need to be considered.

Runway exits. Wind strength in the area. Noise constraints. Lateral separation. So. Many. Things.

By the time I read through the capacity report, learned from the experts on Stack Exchange, and took a moment to consider all of the other things going on around a tarmac, I realized two things.

  1. It is very unlikely that adding two miles to the runways at LaGuardia will have THAT big of an impact.
  2. It is kind of a miracle that we ever get anywhere when it comes to flying, so maybe be nicer to the folks at the desk.

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