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Robert Trigaux

Brookings: More airline delays coming, so think hard about how high speed rail can help



LaguardiaairportdelaysAP Wake up and good morning. This may come as no great surprise for those who travel by air regularly, but lengthy airline delays are twice as common now as in 1990 and will get worse as the economy recovers. So says a new report just out by the Brookings Institution. The findings are especially important to Florida, which is so dependent on air travel-based tourism. And the report also urges more national investing in high-speed rail -- something now seriously sought between Orlando and Tampa, for starters, later adding Miami -- for trips under 500 miles to spread the transportation needs of a growing population and to reduce the strain on airports (and roads). (AP photo: LaGuardia Airport delays.)

Here's a link to the Brookings report: Expect Delays: An Analysis of Air Travel Trends in the United States. And here are some key findings based on an analysis at the national and metropolitan levels of commercial air travel patterns between 1990 and 2009:

* Air passenger travel in the United States experienced its first annualized drop in
September 2008 since the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, and the decline has continued
through (at least) March 2009. Strong economic growth helped American airports increase their
passenger and flight levels by over 60 percent from 1990 to 2008, tripling population growth. Residents are traveling less since the current economic downturn, producing sustained reductions in passengers and flights since September 2008 and June 2008, respectively.

Check out the destination passeneger data from some of Florida's major airports (annualized as of March 2009):

* Tampa Bay (includes two airports): 1-year, down 8.2 percent; 5-year, up 8.7 percent, and 10-year, up 29.7 percent.

* Orlando-Kissimmee (includes two airports): 1-year, down 6.1 percent; 5-year, up 24.4 percent, and 10-year, up 36.1 percent.

* Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Miami Beach (includes three airports): 1-year, down 4.1 percent; 5-year, up 13.4 percent, and 10-year, up 20.4 percent.

* Jacksonville (includes one airport): 1-year, down 7.7 percent; 5-year, up 17.9 percent, and 10-year, up 30.1 percent.

* Nearly 99 percent of all U.S. air passengers arrive or depart from one of the 100 largest
metropolitan areas, with the vast majority of travel concentrated in 26 metropolitan-wide
hubs. Between April 2008 and March 2009, 26 metropolitan areas captured nearly three quarters of all domestic travelers, while 20 of these metros landed 94 percent of all international passengers. These extreme shares make these metropolitan hubs the critical links in the nation’s aviation system and reinforce their role as major centers of tourism and commerce.

* Half of the country’s flights are routes of less than 500 miles, and the busiest corridors
are between the metropolitan air travel centers. Corridors of no more than 500 miles
constituted half of all flights and carried 30 percent of all passengers in the most recent 12-month period starting April 2008.

* The 26 metropolitan centers of air travel and other large metropolitan areas host a
concentration of national delays
-- and the situation is worsening over time. The concentration within the 100 largest metropolitan areas was especially troubling with congestion-related delays as well as those lasting over two hours. Within the 26 domestic hubs, six experienced worse-than-average delays for both arrivals and departures: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, Atlanta, and San Francisco. (No, Tampa is not among the worst.)

The current economic recession led carriers to reduce flights, which improved on-time performance. But travelers will increase with the return of economic growth, and that will reduce on-time performance and continue the hyper-concentration of U.S. air travel within major metropolitan areas and on short-haul flights. To ensure that the commercial aviation system runs efficiently while simultaneously improving its environmental record, policymakers must focus aviation and other transportation investments on the metropolitan centers and the heavily trafficked short corridors, thus strengthening the performance of the our nation’s major economic engines, recommends the Brookings report.

Bottom line? The future clogging of air travel is another argument for selective use of high-speed rail. We've heard the "lessen the traffic jams on the roads" arguments plenty. Aiding air travel is a newer angle.

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:26am]


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