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Fewer Americans taking trips, study finds

Deep frustration with the U.S. air travel system caused American travelers to avoid taking an estimated 41 million trips over the 12 months to the end of April, a survey commissioned by the Travel Industry Association suggests.
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Deep frustration with the U.S. air travel system caused American travelers to avoid taking an estimated 41 million trips over the 12 months to the end of April, a survey commissioned by the Travel Industry Association suggests.

Americans' unwillingness to take domestic flights cost the U.S. economy more than $26 billion, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Travel Industry Association (TIA).

The 1,003 air travelers who responded to the survey, conducted by the bipartisan polling firms of Peter D. Hart Research Associates and The Winston Group, also expressed little optimism for positive change, with nearly half saying that the air travel system is not likely to improve in the near future.

"The air travel crisis has hit a tipping point — more than 100,000 travelers each day are voting with their wallets by choosing to avoid trips," said Roger Dow, President and CEO of TIA.

Dow said the trips avoided during the last 12 months cost airlines more than $9 billion in revenue; while hotels lost nearly $6 billion and restaurants more than $3 billion in sales. In addition, federal, state and local governments lost more than $4 billion in tax revenue because of reduced spending by travelers, he said.

"With rising fuel prices already weighing heavily on American pocketbooks, we need to find ways to encourage Americans to continue their business and leisure travel. Unfortunately, just the opposite appears to be happening," said Dow.

The system is the problem, survey finds
The survey also found that travelers are most irritated about the air travel process, not the U.S. airlines themselves. though a recent University of Michigan annual survey found that travelers are more unhappy now with all U.S. airlines except Southwest than at any time since 2001.

"Many travelers believe their time is not respected and it is leading them to avoid a significant number of trips," said Allan Rivlin, a partner at Peter D. Hart Research Associates. "Inefficient security screening and flight cancellations and delays are air travelers' top frustrations."

"A majority of travelers thought that air travel safety was getting better and a majority thought the security was improving as well," said David Winston, President of the Winston Group. "But there are clear frustrations around efficiency and reliability, which are contributing to travelers avoiding air travel."

More than 60 percent of the survey's respondents said the air travel system is deteriorating. The research also suggested one-third of all air travelers are dissatisfied with the air travel system, while 48 percent of all frequent air travelers (those taking five or more trips per year) among the respondents were dissatisfied.

The survey of adults who had taken at least one roundtrip by air in the last 12 months was conducted between May 6 and May 13, 2008 and the statistical margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.2 percentage points. TIA said it would host an emergency summit of travel leaders on June 17 in Washington, DC to discuss next steps for moving this issue forward with policymakers.

Airline association response
James May, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association (ATA), said in a statement issued following the release of the TIA findings: “Welcome to the picnic. The TIA survey reveals what (the Air Transport Association) has been saying for years, that we have an aging air traffic control system that is in desperate need of replacement.” Washington, D.C.-based ATA is the trade association that represents most U.S. airlines.

May said that if TIA wanted to take effective action regarding the situation, it should join ATA in asking the Transportation Department and FAA for immediate action on key initiatives to improve all aspects of air travel, including:

  • Implementing "NowGen" next-generation air traffic control technologies now to provide immediate system efficiency gains, based on a list of 77 initiatives that ATA submitted to the DOT and FAA last fall;
  • Resolving New York region airspace issues and accelerating airspace redesign to relieve pressure that delays in that region put on the rest of the system; and
  • Urging Congress to fight sky-high oil prices while not imposing unfair environmental fees on airlines

“Just six months ago, TIA proposed raising revenue through a tax on passengers, an unsuitable solution to an already overtaxed industry,” said May. “We hope that we can work cooperatively with TIA to reduce, not raise, the cost of travel.”