With one in five flights delayed and major U.S. airports including Salt Lake City International hosting far more passengers than their capacity, flying is becoming increasingly difficult and frustrating.
Two reports issued Wednesday by the U.S. Travel Association and Eno Center for Transportation say that U.S. air travel facilities are in such bad shape that Thanksgiving-like passenger congestion usually experienced the Wednesday before the holiday will become a year-round reality at nearly all of the top 50 U.S. Airports within the decade.
The studies revealed that airports already are struggling to keep up with current air travel demand and that expected growth in passenger volume threatens to overwhelm the system. Federal budget constraints caused by sequestration and lack of income to upgrade air traffic control systems are major obstacles to improving the crisis.
The four major airports already experiencing Thanksgiving-like congestion levels at least one day every week include John F. Kennedy International in New York, McCarran International in Las Vegas, Orlando International and Chicago Midway. The report said that 24 of the top 30 airports, including Salt Lake City International, will experience the same congestion level within the next five years.
The report said that one day a week will feel like the Wednesday before Thanksgiving at Salt Lake International starting in 2016. Unless something is done to improve the situation, that will go up to two days in 2020 and every day in 2038.
Barbara Gann, spokeswoman for the Salt Lake airport, said the current facility was constructed to handle 12 million passengers a year but is currently hosting 20 million, making it already undersized. While the airport’s three runways can handle increased traffic, its outdated terminal cannot.
“That is one of the motivations for our terminal redevelopment program,” said Gann. “That will address aging facilities as well as improving our facilities. It will address seismic risks and ease capacity constraints.”
Gann said construction on new Salt Lake City International terminals is scheduled to begin next year with a completion date of 2019.
In the meantime, she said there is room for additional capacity within the terminals during off-hours, when gates can handle more crowds.
Travel officials such as U.S. Travel president and CEO Roger Dow emphasized, however, that the problem is a national one. If a major airport such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York or Chicago experiences delays, the entire system can be affected.
“Travelers focus on what was the experience door-to-door, including getting to the airport, through TSA [Transportation Security Administration checkpoints], checking in, being delayed, claiming bags and how long it takes to get out of the airport,” said Dow. “The U.S. is woefully behind what’s happening around the world. Many governments and cities are ramping up the infrastructure and going faster. The sad news is that the U.S. is going slower … The gap between the busiest day of travel and the rest of the year is rapidly shrinking.”
Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the Eno Center, said current federal policy is not addressing the problem.
“Over the next decade, delays in our aviation system have the potential to inhibit travel and economic growth,” he said. “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 think tank’s four proposals included:
• Restructuring the federal airport improvement program to target investment to the greatest national benefits. This might involve investing fewer federal dollars at smaller regional and rural airports and more at major city and hub facilities.
• Creating a new federal discretionary grant program to address improvements and innovation in airport operations.
• Exploring the idea of separating the air traffic control and safety functions of the Federal Aviation Administration to accelerate the delivery of the next generation air traffic control modernization program.
• Relaxing the current federal restrictions on the airport Passenger Facility Charge to allow individual airports to raise additional revenues for investment.
In a teleconference Wednesday from Washington, D.C., Schank said that Congress likely lacks the political will to raise additional revenue for improvements through traditional tax dollars. He said allowing airports to raise their own revenue and spending less money on airports that people aren’t using may be the best current alternatives.
“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,” said Dow. “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.”
Findings from the report
24 of the top 30 U.S. Airports will experience passenger levels equal to the Wednesday before Thanksgiving at least one day during the average week within five years.
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 over half of America’s largest airports.
From 2004 to 2012, delayed arrivals on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving were 2.22 percent higher than the national average. While that 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.
U.S. Travel Association and Eno Center for Transportation