Expect more flight delays this summer and in the coming years, as more travelers take to the skies and overburden the nation's air-traffic control system.
That was one of the major themes emerging last week at the two-day Federal Aviation Administration's Aviation Forecast Conference.
The FAA expects the number of air travelers this year to hit a record 718 million -- surpassing the previous high mark set in 2000. That was before the 9-11 attacks scared passengers away and helped cause the economy to stagnate. It was also a summer marked by delays at airports.
This year, we might be in for more gridlock in the air.
"Congestion is on the rise as demand for air service continues to grow," said Robert Bowles, the FAA's manager of statistics and forecasts. "As demand increases, delays will only get worse."
Compounding the problem: Airlines are flying more small jets. That means more aircraft are needed to fly 700 million people than a few years ago. And more planes means more congestion.
The average plane operated by old-line carriers and their regional affiliates accommodates 120 passengers today, down from 140 two years ago, according to a study by GCW Consulting.
This summer, airlines are scheduling more and more airplanes to fly through congested air space, says David Plavin, president of Airports Council International-North America, a trade group that represents airports. The worst areas are in the Northeast and around Chicago.
"It's going to get worse as the planes get smaller and airlines try to make up what they don't make in fares by making it up on volume," he said.
The FAA predicts low fares and a strong economy will create a surge in the number of travelers flying in the next decade, barring another terrorist attack or other major problem.
By 2016, there should be more than a billion passengers a year, the FAA says.
So what to do?
Some airlines, including Delta Air Lines and US Airways, have changed the way they schedule planes, spacing them more evenly throughout the day. At Delta's Atlanta hub, for instance, there are now between 63 and 69 departures per hour, down from 88 departures an hour during peak times under the old way of scheduling, a company vice president says.
That helps, as do new FAA rules making it easier for airports to build runways and other infrastructure.
But those solutions are just small fixes, the FAA says. The agency says it needs more money to replace aging infrastructure and personnel. Officials stopped just short of saying they want new fees, but said they're open to ideas on how to pay for the FAA's needs.
"We can't do it all, and we can't pay for it all at the rate we're going now," said Marion Blakey, the FAA's director.
Expect to hear more on this topic in the coming months when the summer travel season kicks in. To hear people in Washington talk last week, it seems as though the bill for these low fares is bound to come due soon, in the form of higher fees or longer waits at the airports.
Charlotte/Douglas International Airport's cell phone lot is now open, says airport director Jerry Orr. It provides a place for drivers to wait for phone calls from arriving passengers.
Drivers still must stay with the car. A growing number of airports are building the lots.
Charlotte's lot is on Rental Car Road.
Airline passengers can look forward to a gradual increase in bargain fares, but airplanes will grow more cramped and the skies more congested.
"Throughout the day, it gets worse," said Darryl Jenkins, an airline analyst from Northern Virginia. "You'd never, ever want to book a last flight out."
Late local flights, often a result of bad weather and routes that connect through backed-up hub airports, reflect a growing national trend.
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