Crowded Skies Ahead for Thanksgiving And Beyond

Asserting that major investments in the air travel system are needed to avoid serious flight delays and economic harm, two new studies released by the U.S. Travel Association find U.S. air travel infrastructure is in such bad shape that Thanksgiving-like passenger congestion will be a year-round reality at nearly all of the top 50 U.S. airports within the decade.

The companion studies, released by U.S. Travel and the Eno Center for Transportation, reveal that infrastructure is already struggling to keep up with current air travel demand. Expected growth in passenger volume threatens to overwhelm the system completely, and significant harm to the U.S. economy will follow.

"Travel has been one of the leading sectors of the economic recovery, but that success won't be sustainable unless our infrastructure keeps pace," said U.S. Travel President and CEO Roger Dow. "Every projection holds that the demand for travel will continue to dramatically rise, which portends terrific things for the growth of jobs and tax revenues. But that rising demand will be stifled without a significant effort to modernize infrastructure, and unfortunately the moment of greatest need has already arrived."

"Next week, huge numbers of Americans are going to experience first-hand that the U.S. transportation system is no longer the envy of the world—-in fact, we've fallen way behind our global competitors," said Dow. "It has become clear that the federal government can no longer care for our infrastructure on its own. In releasing these studies, the message we are sending is that every option needs to be on the table." 

"Over the next decade, delays in our aviation system have the potential to inhibit travel and economic growth, and current federal policies are not structured to effectively address anticipated capacity issues," said Eno Center President and CEO Joshua Schank. "In our paper, Eno looks at specific airports and the various ways they are capacity constrained, and proposes four policy recommendations that could reduce delays and enable greater economic benefits."

U.S. Travel's study, "Thanksgiving in the Skies," examined passenger volume and growth data to calculate how soon the average day at the nation's airports will resemble the busiest travel days of the year. The study focused on the top 30 airports, which accounted for 70 percent of total passenger enplanements in 2012. 

Its major findings cording to U.S. Travel:
    •    24 of the top 30 U.S. airports will experience passenger levels equal to the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (WBT) at least one day during the average week within five years.
    ◦    One in five of our major airports are already experiencing Thanksgiving-like congestion levels at least one day every week, including John F. Kennedy International in New York, McCarran International in Las Vegas, Orlando International and Chicago Midway International.
    •    Within the next decade, 25 of the nation's top 30 airports will experience the same congestion as the Wednesday before Thanksgiving two days each week.
    •    Within the next 15 years, every other day will feel like the Wednesday before Thanksgiving at more than half of America's largest airports.
    •    From 2004 to 2012, delayed arrivals on the WBT were 2.22 percent higher than the national average. While a 2.22 percent increase may seem small, adding it to the number of total arrivals in 2012 would translate to an additional 119,000 arrival delays each year, or 329 arrival delays each day.

The Eno Center study, "Addressing Future Capacity Needs in the U.S. Aviation System,"examined the existing infrastructure at six major airports and concluded that failure to immediately expand capacity will have dire economic effects on the regions they serve and the U.S. as a whole. Its major findings:
    •    The U.S. aviation system is responsible for 4.9-5.2 percent of the nation's GDP (about 10 million jobs).
    •    The U.S. economy could lose out on more than $6 billion in travel spending by 2016 due to unmet demand at Newark and JFK Airports alone. That estimate could balloon to a $48 billion per-year loss by 2034.
The Eno Center study recommends a series of policy changes to address the issue:
    •    Restructure the federal Airport Improvement Program to target investment to the greatest national benefits.
    •    Create a new federal discretionary grant program to address improvements and innovation in airport operations.
    •    Explore the idea of separating the air traffic control and safety functions of the Federal Aviation Administration to accelerate the delivery of the NextGen air traffic control modernization program.
    •    Relax the current federal restrictions on the airport Passenger Facility Charge to allow airports to raise additional revenues for investment.



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