Federal officials are pushing ahead with an experiment to reduce rampant flight delays around the nation by auctioning off takeoff and landing times at New York City-area airports, where most delays begin.
Bush administration officials are racing to get the plan in place before they leave office in three months; airlines and airports are sprinting to court to stop them.
Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced final rules Thursday to begin auctioning takeoff and landing "slots" at the three major New York-area airports: John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark-Liberty. Under her plan, the auction winners would be announced Jan. 12, about a week before George W. Bush leaves office.
Federal authorities are focused on New York's airspace because roughly two-thirds of flight delays around the country are caused by backups at those airports.
Peters is adamant that auctions will unclog the crowded skies.
"Without slot auctions, a small number of airlines will profit while travelers bear the brunt of higher fares, fewer choices and deteriorating service," Peters said in a statement.
The government will gradually auction up to 10 percent of the landing and takeoff slots the airlines currently operate at the airports.
The Air Transport Association, which represents commercial air carriers, said they will ask a judge to stop the government. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the city's airports, has already joined a lawsuit over the issue and vowed to block any planes using auction slots from arriving at their terminals.
The Port Authority "will take immediate action to stop this plan," said executive director Chris Ward.
"Clearly, the airlines and the Port Authority are trying to play a beat-the-clock game and the administration's days are numbered," said Kenneth Quinn, a former aviation official from the first Bush term who supports the idea of auctions. "Politics and lawsuits are winning out here instead of the consumer."
Peters also announced plans to spend $89 million on taxiway improvements at Kennedy Airport, and reduce the number of hourly takeoffs and landings at LaGuardia, from 75 to 71. Peters said the LaGuardia changes should cut flight delays there by 40 percent.
Federal transportation officials say much of the reason for nationwide flight delays is that airlines have crammed too many planes -- and small planes -- onto New York runways.
To fix that, they have capped the number of flights coming into or out of those airports, and now intend to auction off a fraction of those coveted slots. An auction, they say, will use market forces of supply and demand to make airports more efficient.
Since auctions have never been tried before, no one is certain what the takeoff and landing slots will cost, but government officials expect them to go for hundreds of thousands of dollars each.
Transportation officials said the auctions could raise as much as $150 million over five years, but acknowledged that figure is more guesswork than homework.
"That's as close as we can get to being accurate, but we have really no idea," said D.J. Gribbin, the DOT's top lawyer.
In the past, authorities have taken a variety of steps to impose flight caps and distribute slots at the airports. At LaGuardia, they held a lottery years ago to redistribute slots and held some in reserve for new carriers. At the other two airports, which only recently were capped, they simply told carriers already serving the airports to reduce their flights.
The Bush administration is proceeding with the auction plan in its waning months in office despite a recent legal finding from the Government Accountability Office that they did not have the legal authority to auction flight slots.
Days later, the Justice Department issued a contradictory finding that the government did, in fact, have the authority to auction flight slots.
Critics of the plan are furious.
"It is simply shocking that the DOT is unabashedly continuing this ideological battle despite the staunch opposition from the entire aviation community and the independent finding that the DOT lacks the power under the law to implement the proposal in the first place," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement.