I recently had to catch a flight from New York City to Chicago. The plane left at 11 a.m. I left Manhattan at 9:30 a.m. for the ride to La Guardia that was to take 30 minutes, which would arrive in plenty of time for my flight.
The ride up East River Drive and over the Triborough Bridge and Grand Central Parkway took exactly 28 minutes. But I almost missed my flight. Why?
The two-lane road leading into the upper departures area of the airport was backed up for a mile. In desperation my cab driver swung around, backtracked and drove through a back entrance and into the downstairs arrival area.
Why was the traffic so bad at 11 a.m. on a weekday? Was there an accident? Construction?
The traffic was so bad because it's always that bad at La Guardia. The 50-year-old airport, like dozens of others around the country, is operating beyond its capacity.
Congestion at these airports extends beyond on-ramps and departure levels. Parking is a nightmare. Ground transportation is clogged by passenger traffic. Airport gates are backed up. Airport terminals are overcrowded.
Add these facts to existing air-traffic-control delays, airline maintenance problems and weather, and you don't have to be a rocket scientist to predict the near future.
Since 1978 and airline deregulation, air travel has soared dramatically in the United States. The numbers are scary. In the last nine years air travel has jumped 60% to 450 million passengers last year. And that number is expected to jump to 800 million by the turn of the century.
Federal officials consider 20 airports in this country to be seriously overcrowded.
Some experts predict that within the next 10 years in Los Angeles, travelers will have to leave for the airport four to five hours before their departure.
Los Angeles International Airport already is operating over its capacity. It handled 45 million passengers last year, 5 million more than it was designed to handle.
In Denver, Stapleton International Airport is bursting at the seams. It opened in 1929 and was expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, increasing its capacity to up to 18 million passengers each year.
Last year more than 35 million people went through that airport, ranking it as the fifth-busiest in the world. (By the year 2000 Stapleton is expected to be the second-busiest airport in the United States, with more than 72 million passengers annually.)
What can be done? There are a few short-term solutions.
One suggestion is to expand existing airports where possible.
Newark International is not a small airport, but in previous years it has been under-used. Now it has become a popular choice for many New York City travelers who don't want to fight the traffic at either La Guardia or John F. Kennedy airports.
Another suggestion is to divert airline traffic to smaller, secondary airports in major cities.
But that is better said than done in Southern California. In Orange County, John Wayne Airport handles 400,000 passengers a month. It was designed to handle 400,000 passengers a year . In Ontario the airport terminal is operating at 125% of capacity.
A third alternative is to build more airports.
That's what's happening in Denver. Citizens of Adams County recently voted to allow Denver to annex a portion of their land for a $1.7 billion, 45-square-mile international airport. The airport will become the world's largest commercial airport, but it won't be ready for many years.
Some airports, used by airlines as major hubs, do a great job of processing passengers. Kansas City's airport is a dream. Passengers don't have to walk far between gates, connections are easy and access to the airport is unencumbered.
Another airport that works well is Salt Lake International Airport. It's a market that was once dominated by Western Airlines and which is now controlled by Delta, which absorbed Western last year. The airport can boast of one of the best on-time performance records for major airports.
Equally important, it is one of the least congested airports. Access to the airport is a direct exit off a main interstate, and traffic flow to rental cars, airline terminals and parking is smooth and easy, even during peak times.
Salt Lake airport authorities are going to streamline auto traffic even more. In 1991 a new public parking structure, which will also incorporate major car-rental companies, will open directly across from current baggage-claim facilities.
"The addition of the new structure," says Louis Miller, director of airports, "will make getting into and out of the airport even faster. We estimate that 40% of our commercial vehicle traffic is the constant parade of car-rental shuttle vans. With the new parking structure we won't be needing them."
Another good thing about Salt Lake's airport is that moving sidewalks operate in all connector buildings to boarding gates. The distance between the two most distant gates has been timed at nine minutes.