By Alan Levin
February 15, 2011
WASHINGTON – The embattled airline industry will see solid long-term growth over the next 20 years, with yearly passenger totals climbing from 713 million to nearly 1.3 billion, the government predicted Tuesday.
Growth of that magnitude will be difficult to accommodate at the USA’s most gridlocked airports nearNew Yorkand at other chokepoints, highlighting the need for technological improvements in the air traffic system, aviation experts and federal officials say.
“We need to invest in aviation today to make sure America’s economy remains competitive,” Transportation SecretaryRay LaHoodsays.
The annualFederal Aviation Administrationaviation forecast projects small increases in airline flights and passengers this year compared with 2010. Total flights will drop slightly this year because of a continuing drop in private aircraft use, theFAAsays.
However, the agency predicts annual growth of 1.6% in flights, a 35.5% increase by 2031.
Many airports across the country have seen steep traffic declines in recent years and could easily handle such increases, but it would be tough on already-constrained airports in New York and elsewhere, says John Hansman, a professor at theMassachusetts Institute of Technology.
“It will be very difficult,” Hansman says. “The places that are already congested today will be really hurting unless there are major changes.”
The government is building an air traffic system that tracks aircraft with satellite technology instead of radar to improve efficiency. But the gains may not be enough to handle the forecast increases in already-busy zones, Hansman says.
In addition, the new system won’t be required until 2020, and airlines have been hesitant to spend the estimated $2 billion to $6 billion to equip their planes.
The forecast makes investment in the system known as NextGen critical, the government says.
“Only a modernized air transportation system will be able to keep up with our forecasted demand,” FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt says.
The FAA and the International Air Transport Association are predicting faster growth in developing nations and on international routes.IATAforecasts a 32% increase in worldwide passengers from 2009 to 2014. More than one-quarter of that increase will come from passengers in China alone, the group says.
After a decade in which U.S. airlines lost a collective $60 billion, the FAA says the industry turned a profit last year of $9.5 billion as the economy rebounded and airfares rose.