Airline Enplanements Expected to Grow by 3.5% This Year

WASHINGTON, D.C. – March 16, 2007 – After a flat 2006, the nation’s mainline airline enplanements are expected to grow by 3.5 percent this year, according to the latest FAA annual forecast.

The nation is now on target to fly 1 billion passengers in 2015. By 2020, the last year of the forecast, the FAA projects there will be 1.2 billion enplanements. (Obtain the complete report).

The enplanements on the mainline carriers actually dipped 1.3 percent in 2006, according to Nan Shellabarger, the FAA’s director of aviation policy and plans. The enplanements declined because the network carriers pulled capacity out of the system. Each network carrier, on average, pulled the equivalent of 58 planes from routes, she explains. The low-cost carriers continued to add seats to their fleets last year.

Shellabarger notes that a year ago she expected some pullback on capacity and estimated that the load factor would increase to nearly 78 percent. When the numbers were crunched, she reports that the load capacity hit an all time high with an annual average load factor of 79 percent. The FAA estimates that the annual load factor will maintain the 79 percent mark and eventually hit 80 percent by 2017.

The fastest growth through 2020 will be international flights by both U.S. and foreign carriers. Next year, the agency estimates that enplanements on flights to Asia and the Pacific Rim will grow by 9 percent – the highest growth rate for any sector or any year in the forecast.

Even as the regional carriers fly ever larger planes and the gap between the mainline and regional carriers continues to narrow, the FAA still maintains separate estimates on the two sectors. In preparing this forecast, Shellabarger says new methodology was used for the regional calculations.

The growth for the regional sectors has slowed down after dramatic growth over the last several years as the network carriers “right-sized” their fleets, she notes. The regional enplanements are expected to grow by 4.4 percent this year and then level off to an annual 3 percent growth rate through 2020. All the future growth will be in the 70-90-seat class of regional jets.

Shellabarger estimates that the size of the mainline aircraft will increase slightly so that it will peak in 2010 at 151.2 seats.  She said after 2011 many of the MD-80s would need to be retired. The type and deployment of replacement aircraft will influence the remaining years of the forecast.

The number of commercial aircraft is projected to grow from 7,626 last year to 11,203 in 2020, or 256 new aircraft annually. The FAA projects that 120 new planes will be added to the domestic carriers this year – mostly at the low-cost carriers.

The domestic operation of air cargo carriers is again expected to match the gyrations of the gross domestic product. However, those with international routes are expected to grow much faster.  The international cargo flights will increase by 5.9 percent this year and 7 percent next year.
This is the first FAA forecast to be based on revamped annual general aviation surveys conducted in 2004 and 2005. Shellabarger notes the new survey method doubles the number of aircraft counted.

The piston-powered aircraft are projected to grow at a much slower rate than the turbine, including the new very light jets. While the number of general aviation aircraft is expected to increase, Shellabarger says the number of hours that these planes will be flown actually declines. The drop is attributed to the aging piston fleet with the owners spending less time in these planes.

The FAA is estimating that there will be 400 to 500 VLJs flying next year. Shellabarger says the agency is taking a middle ground estimate between the two camps: the highly skeptical and the industry promoters. The success of the VLJ depends in part if the air taxi concept becomes a profitable alternative to airlines and charter operations.