During the first nine months of the year, LaGuardia, Newark, and JFK have maintained the worst record for on-time arrivals among the 31 major U.S. air hubs, according to the FAA. And because so many flights pass through these hubs, nearly three-quarters of all delays in the U.S. could be traced to a problem in New York. The line of planes waiting to land at LaGuardia Airport can sometimes stretch unbroken in the sky for 40 miles, according to one air traffic controller, who tells the AP, "All we can do is take them and space them out as close as FAA rules allow. It's not like you can put more aircraft in there. That's it. We're just maxed out."

There have been small improvements in on-time arrivals at the three airports, but that's partly due to the fewer number of flights during the recession. Through September 20th, about 66 percent of the arrivals at LaGuardia have been on time, up from 58.6 percent during the same period a year ago. Newark's on-time arrival rate bucked up from 60.8 percent to 64.1 percent, and JFK's improved from 66.8 percent to 71.4 percent. But there's still such heavy traffic during peak times that planes take off and land every 40 to 50 seconds at LaGuardia, and sometimes controllers can't keep up: "One guy just can't talk that fast," controller and union rep Dean Iacopelli says.

The FAA has proposed a $35 billion plan to modernize its air traffic control system, but the high cost has kept it on the back burner. (A computer glitch caused widespread nationwide delays last week.) And delays at JFK are expected to worsen while the Port Authority resurfaces the main runway in the coming months. "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.