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The Headaches of Thanksgiving Travel: Could They Happen Year-Round?

By / Nov 26, 2013 (iStock/Thinkstock)

What if holiday airport congestion were business as usual? A new report from the U.S. Travel Association raises concerns about potentially dire effects of infrastructure problems on the travel industry.

First it was the crowded highways. Now it’s the crowded airports.

The U.S. Travel Association, in a companion study to its Labor Day report on the potential for crowded highways to become the norm, is now looking at the friendly skies and finding some not-so-friendly trends for the future of air travel.

The association’s Thanksgiving in the Skies report [PDF], produced with the help of Cambridge Systematics, finds that there’s serious potential for many of the 50 largest airports in the United States to face constant pre-Thanksgiving Wednesday levels of congestion.

“Travel has been one of the leading sectors of the economic recovery, but that success won’t be sustainable unless our infrastructure keeps pace,” U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow said in a statement.

Where you’ll feel the pain: The report states that one in five domestic flights are already delayed. But it notes that seven major U.S. airports—Chicago Midway International (MDW), New York City’s John F. Kennedy International (JFK), Orlando International (MCO), Las Vegas’ McCarran International (LAS), San Diego International (SAN), Honolulu International (HNL), and Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International (FLL)—all could experience delays twice a week at the Thanksgiving Wednesday level by 2016. If current trends hold, 23 of the nation’s 30 largest airports will face delays at least two days per week within a decade, according to the report. “We’re going to see a rise in passenger frustration,” Erik Hansen, the association’s director of domestic policy, told USA Today. “As a result, that will dampen demand for travel. People will decide not to take trips.”

Why the overcrowding? According to the USA Today report, a big factor is industry consolidation. Fewer airlines are using fewer airports as hubs, causing increasing stress throughout the system. (This was among the concerns over the proposed merger of American Airlines and US Airways.) That trend could have a wider effect on the system as well: A 2013 Eno Center for Transportation study, cited by the U.S. Travel report, suggests that congestion at major international airports such as New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) and San Francisco International Airport (SFO) could discourage people from making international trips into the U.S., costing the economy $6 billion in travel spending.

The dangers of budget cuts: The report also takes aim at a choices Congress made in connection with sequestration-related budget cuts. While the pressure was eventually taken off air-traffic controllers, the long-term impact on infrastructure could be significant, the study states: “In a short-sighted move, Congress transferred $253 million in airport infrastructure funds to pay air traffic controllers’ salaries and stave off furloughs. The transfer averted a short-term crisis of reduced flight schedules and chronic delays caused by air traffic controller shortages, but only exacerbated the long-term challenge to improve and expand U.S. airports.”

In the report, the association recommends continued modernization of the air traffic control system, a reform of aviation financing, and efforts to protect funding for the industry.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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