Saturday, April 29, 2006 New York Fliers May Get Choice a Bit Farther Out By PATRICK McGEEHAN The New York (NY) Times Worried about a looming traffic jam in the skies over New York City, aviation officials have begun studying ways that other airports - some more than 60 miles from Midtown Manhattan - could help relieve the congestion. Executives of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the three airports - La Guardia, Kennedy International and Newark Liberty International - say they fear that the increasingly crowded airspace could crimp the region's economy, driving some business travelers and tourists to other cities. They are mulling a range of incremental improvements that would allow them to squeeze more planes and passengers through the airports they have. But the Port Authority's chairman, Anthony R. Coscia, said he believed a bolder, more controversial solution would be necessary. The time has come, Mr. Coscia said, to start creating another major airport to serve the metropolitan area. "I think we have to start now planning the development of a potential fourth airport," Mr. Coscia said in a recent interview. "We don't want to solve our aviation problem by slowing down our economy." A proposal for a fourth airport is not an original idea, just one that few public officials have dared broach for about 30 years. But in spite of the concept's checkered past and the Port Authority's history of overestimating growth in air traffic, the need for a fourth airport is inescapable this time, Mr. Coscia said. The three airports are already so plagued by delays that they rank at the bottom of the list of big American airports for on-time performance. And, with passenger counts rising steadily, officials predict that the three big airports will reach the limit of their capacity in just 15 years. This year, after resuming growth that was interrupted only by Sept. 11, they are on pace to handle more than 100 million passengers for the first time. Even with a modest rate of increase and a long list of improvements planned, they will reach their full capacity of 130 million annual passengers within 15 years, said William DeCota, the Port Authority's director of aviation. "The trajectory always is up; there's no doubt about that," Mr. DeCota said. "By the year 2020, we will have reached and slightly exceeded our ability to serve 130 million passengers." In round numbers, he said, that would leave each of the airports at what is believed to be its maximum annual load: 50 million passengers at Kennedy, 30 million at La Guardia and 50 million at Newark. The Port Authority expects cargo to pour in faster, compounding the problem. Mr. DeCota forecast that the amount of freight moving through the three airports could increase to four million tons annually by 2020, from less than three million last year. To avert gridlock on the runways, Mr. Coscia said, "We're thinking into the future and working on developing viable options." One point of consensus among aviation officials and analysts is that no major airport will be built from scratch within a two-hour drive of Midtown Manhattan. The only feasible solutions involve expanding existing airports on the periphery of the metropolitan area, they said. "You can't build a 'green-field airport' because there is no green field," said Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, a consulting firm in Evergreen, Colo. "There is no place within 100 miles of New York City where you can buy land for less than a bazillion dollars." Mr. Coscia said a study of six other airports in the region that was commissioned by the Federal Aviation Administration could help identify one that could be expanded into a major airport. The study is analyzing the potential of Stewart International Airport in New Windsor, N.Y.; Long Island Islip MacArthur Airport; Westchester County Airport; Trenton Mercer Airport; Atlantic City International Airport; and Lehigh Valley International Airport in Allentown, Pa. None of them represent anything like an ideal solution. Some are more than 60 miles from Manhattan, and none can be reached easily by mass transit. But they are all that aviation officials have to work with - though each one lies outside the Port Authority's territory, which extends 25 miles out from the Statue of Liberty. Attached Graphic: Possible Expansion. Gazing into the future.