-- Three of the nation's busiest airports will open new runways today, creating the largest one-day increase in aviation capacity in more than a decade.
Flights are expected to land on new runway strips today at Chicago O'Hare International, Seattle-Tacoma International and Washington Dulles International.
More runways mean more capacity — the number of planes an airport can handle at peak times. At Seattle alone, the new runway will allow as many as 20 more planes an hour in bad weather — about a 60% increase, according to the airport.
The new runways won't solve the broader problems that clog the air-traffic system, particularly in the New York region, but they promise immediate improvements at the three airports and slight progress nationwide, according to government officials and aviation experts.
"There will be less delays at each of them," said Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) acting chief Bobby Sturgell. Smoother operations at O'Hare, the nation's second-busiest airport, will improve air traffic across the country, he said.
Lack of runways at key locations is one of the biggest chokepoints in the aviation system, said Marty Lauth, a former FAA controller who teaches at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.
In Seattle, the airport projects it can reduce delays due to air-traffic restrictions by more than 50%, said spokesman Perry Cooper. It is the nation's 27th busiest airport with 347,500 landings and takeoffs last year.
The additional runway at O'Hare will be the seventh at the airport. It will allow the FAA to lift flight caps imposed in 2004 after massive delays crippled operations in Chicago.
Heavy flight delays in 1999 and 2000 prompted a building boom that added runways at congested airports like Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International and Boston's Logan International. With today's openings, 14 runways have opened since 2001.
The three latest runways cost a total of $1.9 billion.