Studies: Thanksgiving-Like Airport Congestion Will Be Norm Within Decade

If you’re one of the millions of Americans who gets to your Thanksgiving turkey by air, you know that holiday air travel is maddening, typically marked by longer lines, more traffic and increased flight delays. Unfortunately, Thanksgiving could be the new normal, according to the U.S. Travel Association, which today released the results of two new studies predicting that Thanksgiving-like air travel congestion will be a regular, year-round occurrence at nearly all of the top 50 U.S. airports within the decade.

Titled “Thanksgiving in the Skies,” the first study — from U.S. Travel — examined passenger volume and growth data at the country’s top 30 airports to calculate how soon the average day of air travel will resemble Thanksgiving. Among its findings:

• Twenty-four 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 major U.S. 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 WBT two days each week.

• Within the next 15 years, every other day will feel like the WBT 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.

“Travel has been one of the leading sectors of the economic recovery, but that success won’t be sustainable unless our infrastructure keeps pace,” U.S. Travel President and CEO Roger Dow said in a statement. “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.”

On the topic of infrastructure, a second study, “Addressing Future Capacity Needs in the U.S. Aviation System,” was conducted by the Eno Center for Transportation. It examined infrastructure at six major airports and concluded that 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; by 2034, that loss could total $48 billion if air travel capacity isn’t expanded.

“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.”

The Eno Center’s recommendations:

• 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.

Concluded Dow, “Next week, huge numbers of Americans are going to experience firsthand that the U.S. transportation system is no longer the envy of the world — in fact, we’ve fallen way behind our global competitors. 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.”

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