Air Travel in the Future: It's Going to Be Crowded

The FAA's annual forecast calls for domestic air traffic to almost double over the next 20 years, from 815 billion passenger-miles to 1.56 trillion. That's an increase of 3.2 percent per year—a bit higher than the growth rate most people expect for the overall economy. The aviation press is slicing and dicing this forecast just about any way they can, but for ordinary consumers, the important question is, "What does it mean for me?"

The one "given" is that there's no way the current system of airports and air traffic control (ATC) can handle this sort of growth. So you can expect some important changes in domestic air service:

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  • The one "win-win" change is the planned completion of the FAA's ambitious NextGen ATC system. NextGen will allow existing airports to accommodate more flights without adding any new runways and will allow much greater efficiency in the use of airway space. Travelers will benefit from reduced delays and congestion, while airlines will save on fuel use.
  • But NextGen improvements can't handle the entire growth. The forecast hints at another change: Although traffic will almost double, says FAA, the number of commercial operations (landings and takeoffs) will increase only 45 percent. The obvious conclusion is that an increase in average airplane capacity will have to account for the difference. That means fewer small jets and turboprops.
  • Airport capacity at big-hub and terminal airports will also have to increase. NextGen will clearly help with that, especially at airports such as San Francisco, where planes will be able to land on closely spaced parallel runways even during bad weather. But NextGen can do only so much, and expanding big airports is not easy. A few, including O'Hare, are planning new and improved runways, but most of them have no room to add additional runways. In two of the biggest metro areas, the push will be to increase use of outlying airports—Steward Field (Newburgh) in the New York area and Palmdale in the Los Angeles area—but travelers and airlines will resist those moves because of lousy ground transportation connections, which will be very expensive to fix.

All in all, these developments should help a lot. But double the traffic will almost surely result in more hassles and delays, at least in some places. Click here to view the full forecast.

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