The days of multi-hour delays at the airport aren't gone by a long shot, but things at JFK at least are considerably better than they were. The Wall Street Journal writes about the new software system the airport is using to reduce the lineup of planes on the tarmac.
In contrast to European airports, which assign specific takeoff times to each flight, the FAA has always allowed planes to depart first come, first served. Consequently, if flights didn't leave the gate and get in line on the taxiway, they didn't go. That's why you had to spend 90 minutes in seat 22K with the screaming children instead of the Admiral's Club.
Essentially, the airports were treating the departing planes as one giant batch. (At least that's interpretation, but I'm not an industrial engineer.) With the new software, however, they're working with small batch sizes:
Now, airlines file flight plans with the Federal Aviation Administration indicating what time they want to take off. A metering program compiles requests, and takeoffs are scheduled in 15-minute blocks of time. Airplanes don't leave the gate until their assigned time. And as a result, the conga line of 40 jets lined up at the end of a runway has been reduced to six to eight.
Okay, this doesn't really eliminate the delays — it just shifts them from the tarmac to the airport terminal. But that's good for passengers, who really don't want to spend any more time than absolutely necessary in the plane, and it's good for the airline, who save money on fuel costs:
Airlines get a big bonus, too, in fuel and maintenance savings. Engines can burn lots of fuel idling and revving up to move forward in line. And engine maintenance is often scheduled and paid for by the hour, so taxiing for an extra hour each day can significantly run up maintenance costs.
And by having smaller batch sizes on the taxiway, logistics for the airlines and the airport are far easier:
when shifting winds force takeoffs and landings onto different runways. With fewer planes in line, it doesn't take as long to re-arrange the airport.
Managing the flow of traffic is still a staggeringly complex process. Even with this new software and system, airplane mechanical problems and sudden weather changes will wreak havoc. But it's nice to see how smaller batches can pay off in yet another arena.
Now, if they could only make a larger batch size for seat legroom.