If air travel demand continues at its current pace, many of the nation's biggest airports will face holiday-type congestion once or twice a week within the next decade.
That is the warning issued in a new study from the U.S. Travel Association, the trade group for the nation's travel industry. The group says the nation's airports need funds to expand and modernize to alleviate airport congestion and growing passenger frustration.
"The gap between the busiest travel day of the year — the Wednesday before Thanksgiving — and the average day in the rest of the year is closing fast," said Roger Dow, chief executive of the U.S. Travel Association.
On the day before Thanksgiving, passenger volumes at airports around the country jump as much as 256 percent compared with those on average travel days, the study says.
At seven of the nation's biggest airports, including San Francisco International and McCarran International in Las Vegas, crowds already reach the levels of the day before Thanksgiving at least once a week, the study says.
The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that U.S. airports will serve about 800 million passengers in 2016 and 1 billion passengers annually by 2027.
At Los Angeles International Airport, one day a week will be as crowded as the day before Thanksgiving by 2015, the study says. Without major investments to upgrade the airport, every day at LAX will be as crowded as the day before Thanksgiving by 2033, the study predicts.
Even though passenger volume has been dropping at some regional airports, the travel association says the congestion problems will eventually spread to smaller airports.
The nation's airlines are increasingly directing flights to hub airports, according to a related study released by a Washington think tank, the Eno Center for Transportation. When passenger volumes exceed capacity at hub airports, a ripple effect will lead to flight delays at other airports across the country, the Eno study says.
"Not all airports within the system are experiencing capacity constraints, but due to the interconnectivity of the system, those with constraints create congestion nationwide," the Eno study says.
The travel association's study does not estimate how much money is needed to solve the congestion problem, but it points to a $71.3 billion backlog of airport infrastructure projects that the Airports Council International-North America says need to be completed by 2017.
Finding the money to pay for the expansion and modernization projects could be a problem, the travel association acknowledged.
Dow said travelers and members of the travel industry need to bring attention to the problem to get lawmakers to act.
"Everything happens when you begin to get outrage," he said.
The forecast of severe airport congestion was no surprise to the American Association of Airport Executives, the trade group that represents executives from 850 airports and aviation-related companies.
"We have seen a whole lot of studies saying we have a lot of needs at airports that are going unmet," said Joel Bacon, a spokesman for the group.
He said airport executives would like greater authority to raise funds to launch local airport improvement projects.