The 50-Minute Flight That Took 85-Years and 11+Hours

How LaGuardia Airport Proved Einstein Correct Again

On Tuesday, October 4, 2022, I spent over 11 hours at New York’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA) trying to take a 50-minute flight to a major city in Virginia. The irony is I should have known better than to even try flying out of LGA on what should have been an easy, short flight.

My first experiences with LGA were in the late 1970s as a commercial pilot and air traffic controller at the LGA Airport Traffic Control Tower (ATCT). One day I would land a corporate aircraft on runway 31 and another day I would be working as an air traffic controller in the ATCT clearing aircraft to land. I would later go on to spend over 50 years working in aviation around the world before I boarded that October flight from LGA to Virginia.

All my experience has led me to the conclusion that so far as the airside of LGA is concerned – that’s the runways and airspace used by arriving and departing flights – not much has changed since the 1930s when New York’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia demanded to be flown to a New York City airport instead of Newark, New Jersey. That political stunt led to a tiny field in Flushing, New York, opening in 1939, renamed LaGuardia Airport, and growing to what it is today.

But exactly what is it today? Airlines and the New York and New Jersey Port Authority have spent billions enhancing the passenger terminals and gates. While a vast improvement, they’ve only created more plush facilities where passengers are trapped, awaiting updates on new departure times. On dark and stormy nights passengers can sense the descending insanity settling on the airport and just hope that things will change.

Now imagine future passengers sitting in the next generation of aircraft with hydro-electric, carbon-neutral engines capable of supersonic speeds, still sitting on a taxiway for 3+ hours waiting to get into the air. Insane, right?  Enhanced transportation is more than just cushier seats at an airport bar, where you realize you’re so late there’s now no reason to even go. 

We need to do better – and we need to consider some very non-standard, counter-intuitive, out-of-the-box ideas to tackle the New York Metropolitan Area in general, and LGA Airport in particular.  

Unfortunately, there is no single person, politician, government agency, or organization we can blame. This is truly a complex matrix of factors comprised of aviation’s physical limits, combined with unrealistic demands from New York City’s geography and demographics, and perhaps a touch of stubbornness. In fact, there’s evidence of all these factors going back to the 1920s when the future LaGuardia was North Beach Field, designed and built for seaplanes.  

When you consider how airports work, you find all airports around the world have something in common – they depend on runways and airspace – neither of which can be easily created, and both of which are limited by their environment. In New York, everything is in conflict with something.

With both runways and airspace, more is always better. Two runways are better than one, four are better than two, and parallel runways, whose flight paths do not conflict, are better than two runways that cross – like LGA – risking aircraft colliding.  

But more airspace – which is good – generally indicates fewer aircraft in less populated areas. More people generally mean more flights in more crowded airspace, while communities insist on low fares, no delays, no pollution, and no noise.  

LGA’s capacity has been studied, debated, and tinkered with for years by multiple agencies and organizations. A recent study correctly indicated the airports’ capacity under ideal conditions (departing Runway 13, arriving Runway 22 in VFR weather conditions), was around 82 flights per hour.  But it’s difficult to find information on the airport’s capacity under one of the worst conditions (departing Runway 13, arriving Runway 13, in IFR conditions), where LGA’s capacity is reduced to less than half of that number.

While there have been improvements in technology and procedures that occasionally added capacity, these improvements have generally been limited to single digits. In the late 1970s, the capacity figure for the same ideal condition was the mid to high 70s.  But nothing could ever compensate for the huge decrease in capacity that cut the number of flights in half on those occasions where the ideal was not possible. The result, then and now, is massive delays and/or cancelled flights.  In that regard today is no different than 1979, except flight cancelation notifications arrive faster via passengers’ smart phones.

So, maybe it’s time for more imaginative thinking. 

Eventually, we will see unmanned aerial taxis (UAS and Drones) safely operating and carrying passengers. LGA’s location is now ideal as the center of an aerial taxi transportation operation – which was Mayor LaGuardia’s original dream.  

With air taxi vehicles capable of operating below 2,000 feet point-to-point, a significant amount of current airspace used for LGA’s complex flight paths can be reapportioned back to JFK Airport (JFK) and Newark Airport (EWR) to enhance their operations.  LGA aerial taxis could feasibly operate between all the Tri-State counties and airports at JFK, EWR and yes, even Stewart, White Plains, and Islip, New York. 

While this vision is not without challenges, another wildly counterintuitive idea is to enhance the operation by making LGA a single runway airport utilizing Runway 4-22. This is a example where less might actually mean more since there’s more to efficient transportation than just the number of planes on a taxiway.

The concept of Runway 4-22 becoming the main/only runway envisions the three New York City airports operating a coordinated set of parallel runways. Parallel runways provide non-conflicting flight paths, which is simpler and safer than crossing flight paths. When parallel runways are separated by a significant distance, they can act independently of each other and be very efficient. Doing this in New York would require an entirely new way of visualizing flight patterns that were never envisioned in the New York area. It would truly require a “clean sheet of paper” approach and modeling – something, to my knowledge, we’ve never tried before. It would definitely require a team of people who are not conditioned to say, “That would never work here!!”

The number of flights to/from LGA could finally be managed based on the physical limitations of the airside – the runways & airspace – with a focus on maximum capacity for the worst configurations, not on the maximum number of aircraft under the (rare) ideal conditions. Interestingly, this is not a new idea.

While there would be fewer total flights at LGA, the flights would arrive/depart more efficiently with capacity increases possible at JFK and EWR due to a reduction in complexity for the entire New York Area.  

LGA would only be for arriving and departing Tri-State passengers – not used as a connecting hub for other airports artificially increasing the traffic demand on the airport.  Again, not a new idea. There will be a decrease in revenue, but there will be a greater decrease in the cost to the airlines for irregular operations. Bar revenue may take a hit due to happy customers arriving and departing on schedule.

Wild ideas? Yes, and some not original. But nothing will happen overnight – maybe not even in our lifetimes, unless we change our thinking. This problem started over 85 years ago with a mayor who wanted a transportation center for New York City. The problem was made worse when North Beach Field became LaGuardia. Even then people knew it was too small to do what Fiorello LaGuardia wanted, but the aviation community just never knew how to say no. 

We all know how Einstein defined insanity – in this case, billions of dollars invested and lifetimes of flight delays. So I submit it’s time for us to recognize we need to rethink this problem. I cannot imagine the industry ever recouping the money they spent on the new terminals if things never change – there just cannot be enough passengers willing to spend over 11 hours to make a 50-minute flight.