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Chuck Around New York

Keeping airplanes flying high even as oil costs do the same
By Senator Charles Schumer
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle - 7/6/08

Flying from Rochester to Orlando should never be as costly as flying from New York to London. But in 1998 when I was elected to the U.S. Senate, that's exactly the kind of fares local travelers paid. Upstate airports like Rochester's had limited competition, leaving the flying-public with few options and sky-high prices.

Then, we attracted creative, new firms like JetBlue and AirTran, now Rochester's two biggest carriers. We've come a long way from the bad old days. But if we don't take immediate steps to reduce oil prices, alleviate congestion in the skies and keep competition strong, we could end up back where we started.

With jet fuel prices up 80 percent in the last year, air carriers are cutting flights by 10 percent across the board. The good news is that demand for travel in Rochester has remained very strong. While the Democrat and Chronicle on July 1 reported that Rochester will lose 4.6 percent of passenger seats on departing flights in October because of reductions in service at the Greater Rochester International Airport, the number of people getting on planes is still increasing. In 2001, Rochester planes were an average of 53 percent full, and that number has risen steadily each year since, reaching 76 percent so far for 2008.

So how do we avoid falling victim to catastrophic airline cuts that would cripple our local economy? Three ways: cut oil prices, alleviate costly air traffic congestion, and make sure airlines know just how well the airport and Rochester are doing to keep competition strong.

*First, the skyrocketing price of oil is straining all airlines, and there is a limit to how much of the cost increase can be passed on to consumers. In 2000, 15 percent of a passenger's airline ticket paid for fuel; today that number is 40 percent. Unless the world's oil supply is significantly ramped up in the near term, $140 a barrel is here to stay. So, I am pushing the U.S. government to use its diplomatic leverage to get the Saudis and other OPEC nations to ramp up production to capacity.

The United States also must forge a path to energy independence. We must innovate to increase conservation and fossil fuel-production domestically, even as we develop new energy sources. We are inching forward on alternative fuels, but we haven't invested nearly enough to make a difference. That must change.

*Second, we must limit air delays. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics estimates that the national average of on-time flights is 73 percent, down from 82 percent in 2003. The Joint Economic Committee that I chair found that flight delays cost passengers, airlines and the U.S. economy more than $40 billion. A big part of those delays is caused by the mess at the three New York City area airports. JFK airport is the top destination for Rochester travelers, and because of congestion at that airport the average late departure is 75 minutes and the average late arrival is 63 minutes.

To fix those delays, the FAA must invest in technology and personnel. A big contributor to growing delays is the inadequate number of air traffic controllers, caused by a wave of controller retirements and the FAA's stubborn unwillingness to hire the appropriate number of replacements. The Greater Rochester International Airport is understaffed by six controllers a staggering number given the airport's size.

*Third, we need to get out the good word about Rochester in order to keep competition strong. Part of Rochester's strength is the resilience of the local economy, which is outperforming the national economy. While the number of flights is down a little in Rochester, the number of people flying is still up. Even with the industry's slowdown, the number of passengers on arriving flights increased by .7 percent over the past year and the number of departing passengers increased by 1 percent. It is critical that we press our case to the airlines that Rochester is a viable market for flying. We have to be aggressive, persistent and persuasive, and remind them that demand for flights especially lucrative business flights is high and the prospects for new economic development remains strong. To that end, I'll be working closely with the city and the airport to make sure we are pressing our case to the airlines that they should not make cuts, but instead should consider increasing flights to Rochester in the medium and long term.

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