NEW YORK — Fewer people are expected to fly this holiday season, but travelers shouldn't expect a full reprieve from the horrid flight delays of Thanksgivings past, especially if they need to land anywhere near New York City.
Despite some recent improvements, the Big Apple's three major airports continue to be the country's worst air travel bottleneck.
Through the first nine months of the year, they ranked first, second and third worst in on-time arrivals among the 31 major U.S. air hubs, according to federal statistics.
The problem doesn't affect just New Yorkers. Because such a large percentage of the nation's flights pass through the city sometime during any given day, delays here have a tendency to ripple elsewhere.
In 2007, nearly three-quarters of all delays in the U.S. could be traced to a problem in New York, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The logjam has received a lot of attention over the past two years, with mixed results.
The FAA tinkered with takeoff and landing procedures and limited the number of flights allowed at all three airports. Airlines adjusted their schedules. Air traffic controllers settled a labor dispute. The military even opened up restricted airspace off the East Coast.
Improvements have been modest.
On busy days, the lines of planes landing at LaGuardia Airport can still stretch unbroken in the sky for 40 miles, said Dean Iacopelli, an air traffic controller and union representative at the facility that handles approaches to New York.
"All we can do is take them and space them out as close as FAA rules allow," he said. "It's not like you can put more aircraft in there. That's it. We're just maxed out."
Getting planes off the ground is no picnic, either, he said.
With a takeoff or landing scheduled every 40 to 50 seconds during peak periods, controllers are sometimes so busy giving instructions that they can't get the words out quickly enough.
"One guy just can't talk that fast," Iacopelli said.
The little relief that has come recently has been due partly to a nationwide reduction in air travel, experts said.
Flights were down 10 percent at LaGuardia and 9 percent at Newark Liberty International in the fiscal year that ended in July. They were down nearly 5 percent at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Fewer flights have meant fewer delays. Through Sept. 20, about 66 percent of the arrivals at LaGuardia have been on time this year, up from an abysmal 58.6 percent during the same period a year ago. Newark's on-time arrival rate improved from 60.8 percent to 64.1 percent. JFK's improved from 66.8 percent to 71.4 percent.
Big improvements aren't expected anytime soon. Airports serving Atlanta, Chicago, Boston, Seattle and Washington, D.C., have all added runways in recent years to relieve stress, but no such expansion is in the works for New York or Newark, N.J.
The FAA continues to work on a handful of other projects aimed at reducing congestion.
For two years it has been phasing in a reconfiguration of the complicated airspace around New York and Philadelphia.
Airlines have been seeking an overhaul of the old, inefficient jet routes for years, but the plan has been opposed by some communities because of noise concerns.
Implementation, scheduled to be complete in 2012, is now significantly behind schedule.
"The sooner we get it, the better," said Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American Airlines.
Meanwhile, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airports, is preparing to resurface one of the main runways at Kennedy. That project will also add high-speed taxiways and extra waiting pads aimed at reducing backups.
Airlines worry that delays could get worse while the strip is under construction, but Port Authority officials say they have planned thoroughly to minimize disruptions.
"I'm a believer that sometimes it's worth it to take the pain in a short dose, and get it over with," said Susan Baer, the Port Authority's aviation director.
The FAA for years has been pushing a $35 billion plan to modernize its air traffic control system, a project called NextGen.
Some elements of the new technology, which promises a significant efficiency boost, are already being deployed, but the government has hesitated to put the overhaul on a fast track, in part because of concerns over its enormous cost.
David Castleveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an airline industry group, blamed the slow rollout of the project on "procrastination" and "complacency."
"The economy will turn around, we all know that, and there will be growth. Will we be ready for it?" he asked.
In the meantime, air traffic controllers will try to get the most they can out of the equipment they have.
Ray Adams, a controller and union official at the tower in Newark, said it won't be easy.
"Traffic has been down, and we are still running tremendous delays," he said. "At some point, depending on controller skill level, you just get to the point where you can't jam anyone else in there."