WASHINGTON_Airline passengers can look forward to a gradual increase in bargain fares, but airplanes will grow more cramped and the skies more congested, the Federal Aviation Administration predicted Tuesday.
Driven in part by lower fares, the number of airline passengers will rise 45 percent from 738.6 million in 2005 to 1.07 billion in 2017, the FAA said in its annual forecast.
Many passengers will fly on smaller planes as airlines replace jumbo jets with smaller aircraft, such as regional jets, the FAA said.
"Fares will be down, crowds will be up, delays will be longer," said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association. "You're more likely to be in the middle seat, or next to someone in the middle seat, or sitting at the gate because you got bumped off the airplane."
For domestic flights, there will be a blip upward in ticket prices this summer, the FAA says. That's because schedules have been cut back, due partly to the bankruptcies of Delta Air Lines Inc. and Northwest Airlines Corp.
But beginning this fall, the FAA predicts, ticket prices will start to fall. Not all air fares will be bargains, of course. Last-minute purchases or fares on routes that don't have much competition will still be high.
Still, air travelers who shop around or plan in advance will be the rule rather than the exception over the next decade. The FAA is predicting that airlines will earn a penny less for each mile a passenger flies in 2017 than they earn now.
The skies will also be filled with more cargo airplanes and more small planes, such as air taxis and corporate jets, the FAA said as part of its forecast, which typically covers slightly more than a decade.
Whether there will be enough money to pay for the dramatic growth in air traffic remains to be seen.
The FAA will have a lot less to spend on airport buildings, runway and equipment this year if Congress passes President Bush's budget proposal.
Bush wants to chop $765 million (€644 million) from this year's budget for airport buildings, runways and equipment, a 22 percent reduction from the $3.5 billion (€2.95 billion) being spent this year.
The savings would help pay to hire and train more air traffic controllers.
"Getting the right balance is the primary concern," said FAA chief Marion Blakey, noting that the administration was reluctant to spend money on new infrastructure when more is needed to operate the system.
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Expect more flight delays this summer and in the coming years, as more travelers take to the skies and overburden the air-traffic control system.
With more planes in the sky, the agency and the airlines are pushing to end the ticket tax and find a way to redistribute the burden of funding air traffic control.
The project aims to improve airport security and prepare the airport for a new generation of jumbo jets.