March 8, 2012 at 4:03 PM ET
If you’ve been thinking that flights are full and airports are crowded lately, brace yourself.
On Thursday, FAA released its annual forecast, projecting that airline passenger travel will nearly double over the next 20 years. According to FAA, U.S. airlines will carry 732 million passengers this year, 746 million next year and eventually 1.2 billion in 2032.
“This year, more people will be flying more miles, and we expect that to continue in future years,” said FAA Acting Administrator Michael Huerta in a statement. “The American people deserve an aviation system that can keep pace with our increasing reliance on air travel.”
For FAA, the forecast is a talking point in support of the agency’s efforts to develop NextGen, a satellite-based air traffic control system now being developed to replace the nation’s aging, ground-based system. Using GPS technology, the system would presumably increase capacity and reduce gridlock by allowing planes to fly closer together and transit airports more efficiently.
Some aviation experts, however, question the validity of FAA’s numbers as well as the agency’s rationale.
“I think that the ‘air traffic will double’ statement is a good way for the FAA to say this is why we need NextGen,” said Tom Reich, director of air service development at AvPort, an airport management and consulting company. “It’s grandstanding to get accomplished what they want to accomplish.”
Other observers, however, agree with FAA, citing micro-economic factors — the backlog of airplane orders at Airbus and Boeing, for example — and larger ones pegged to the global economy.
“Look at the aircraft orders at Boeing and Airbus,” said consultant Steve Cowell of SRC Aviation LLC. “If you wanted to order an airplane from Boeing right now, you wouldn’t get it for seven years.”
At the same time, socio-economic factors point to a parallel increase in passenger demand, according to Mark Kiefer of Mark Kiefer Consulting: “The propensity for air travel increases — and increases markedly — with increases in income. The short-term outlook may still be anemic but eventually we’ll return to more normal levels of growth.”
Handling that growth, whether it doubles or not, will be the real challenge, and while NextGen may counter congestion in the skies, it won’t have any impact on the crowds traversing the nation’s airports.
“The story on the ground is more mixed,” said Kiefer. “There are certain airports that we already know are chronically congested and have real physical constraints. LaGuardia, for example, is already maxed out and is not going to get any bigger.”
On the other hand, many of the nation’s smaller airports are underutilized. “Part of the solution will be to try to move some of the traffic to those airports which would allow more air travel without building more runways,” he said.
“The idea is to get more throughput with the same amount of concrete.”
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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.