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What if every travel day was as bad as Thanksgiving?

Nova Safo Dec 3, 2014

What if every travel day was as bad as Thanksgiving?

Nova Safo Dec 3, 2014

Imagine if every week was Thanksgiving at the biggest airports in the U.S.

That is exactly where we are headed, according to the U.S. Travel Association, a group that represents city tourism bureaus, hotels and other industry groups.

The association says that within the next six years, the 30 biggest airports in the U.S. – which account for 70 percent of air passenger traffic – will see at least one day a week of spiking congestion, equivalent to what we typically see on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. 

The report says some airports have already hit that milestone, including Chicago’s Midway, Las Vegas’ McCarran International, and New York’s John F. Kennedy International. 

In 2015, five more airports are expected to achieve the dubious distinction, including Washington D.C.’s Dulles and Sky Harbor International in Phoenix. 

Part of the problem is that air passenger traffic is projected to grow about 2 percent a year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, and will total 738 million domestic passengers by 2018. That’s up from 653 million in 2012.

At the same time, airline industry consolidation has meant fewer flights, on bigger planes, carrying more passengers to fewer airport hubs for connecting flights, says Andrew Tipping, a consultant for both airlines and airports at Strategy&. 

The result has led to huge peaks in traffic, as much as a tenfold increase, at one client’s airport terminal, says Tipping, who would not name the terminal. “It’s a complex problem,” Tipping says, “This is not a question of if there should be change. It’s a question of when there should be change.”

Airports could develop a system, for example, of charging airlines more to land during peak periods. Tipping says. Eventually, the current airport structure in the U.S. will also have to expand to meet demand, he says.

“We can push for a while to keep on using what we’ve got. But at some point you can’t keep on improving and there is expansion needed,” Tipping says.

So, who should pay for that expansion?

The U.S. Travel Association is proposing a hike in the fee airports charge passengers on their tickets. The fee is currently capped by law at $4.50, but the association wants airports to have the freedom to raise that amount by as much as an additional $4 to fund expansion projects.

“The largest U.S. airports are the most financially strapped, and these are the airports that most people use,” says Erik Hansen, the travel association’s senior director of domestic policy. 

The country’s top 30 airports are going to get even more congested within the next six years. according to Hansen, and expansion will be important to meeting future needs.

“We’re investing more in airports all the time,” counters Jean Medina, an Airlines for America spokeswoman who says passengers shouldn’t be shouldering airport improvement costs.

“Airports have … access to government funds, they have access to a trust fund, they have access to concessions which all pay in…. They have numerous access to funding,” Medina says.

Medina also points out that there are fewer flights today than there were prior to the recession, although the FAA predicts that domestic air passenger traffic should surpass 2007 levels by 2016.

“What’s actually happening is passengers are connecting through a smaller number of airports,” says Tipping. “And when you put that into major travel times like Thanksgiving and others, it does cause massive problems.”

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