NEW YORK -- Airlines will cut the number of flights in and out of New York-area airports during the busiest hours, the Bush administration said yesterday as it announced an effort to ease worsening air travel delays across the country.
Much of the nation's snarled air traffic traces back to congestion at the region's three airports, which have the worst on-time records.
The changes could have a broad impact, especially for airlines with large and growing operations at John F. Kennedy International Airport such as Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines and New York's JetBlue Airways.
Airlines praised the changes as a good temporary step to relieve congestion, but said more must be done to increase airport capacity. They said that, for consumers, the new measures likely would not disrupt near-term travel plans.
But critics of the move said some travelers, especially those flying across the Atlantic or at peak times, could eventually face higher prices and fewer choices.
Under an agreement months in the making between major airlines and the government, no more than 82 or 83 flights will be allowed per hour at JFK, depending on the time of day. This past summer, up to 100 flights were scheduled per hour.
This flight cap starts March 15 and is to last two years.
A similar restriction is planned for Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey to prevent excess JFK flights from migrating there. LaGuardia Airport already limits flights.
The plan to cap flights at JFK could slightly improve on-time airline performance at Baltimore, said Jonathan Dean, spokesman for the Maryland Aviation Administration.
"There may be some marginal benefit to" Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, Dean said. "There's sort of a halo effect from the New York airports, up and down the East Coast."
U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said the caps will not limit the number of flights each day, but are intended to spread flights out to relieve congestion during peak travel hours.
"These limits will do much to end the scheduling practices that try to squeeze in more flights per hour than the runways can efficiently handle," Peters told reporters at a Federal Aviation Administration air traffic command center in Virginia.
She said that while the flight cap agreement is voluntary, the FAA will have a system in place to prevent flight capacity from rising beyond the limits.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the three airports, criticized the decision, saying the caps underestimate capacity and "will cut the number of passengers at JFK, reduce travel options, and increase prices for every passenger."
The caps also may not be practical, said Tim Sieber, vice president of the Boyd Group aviation consulting firm.
"It's very easy for the Transportation Department to say that the airlines don't have to get rid of flights, that they can shift them to other hours, but that defies the scheduling paradigm that the airlines use," Sieber said. "A lot of flights do connect with each another, and if you're missing connections it's sort of death by a thousand cuts."
Hardest hit may be airlines with trans-Atlantic flights, since favorable departure and arrival times are limited, Sieber said. "Who ... wants to arrive in London at three in the morning?"
Sun reporter Laura McCandlish contributed to this article.