Numbers are optimistic, but industry still skeptical about modernization
By John F. Infanger, Editorial Director
WASHINGTON — As industry representatives met here in March to discuss the future of aviation, the buzz heard in the hallways and from the podium was about the aviation funding bill about to be passed in Congress — about a mile away from the D.C. Convention Center. Overall, the mood and the projections were positive, though speakers reflected the audience's skepticism about the future of the U.S. system.
The event was the annual forecast conference held by the Federal Aviation Administration. This year, the forecasts for both commercial and general aviation were held in the same venue.
David Plavin, president of the Airports Council Int'l - North America, possibly best summed up the message of this year's conference: The U.S. aviation system is way behind from where it needs to be, he says; but the good news is, some people are beginning to recognize the needs of the industry.
Specifically, those people are members of Congress, who approved a compromise bill once again orchestrated by Rep. Bud Shuster (R-PA) and which allows for significant long-term (three years) funding (see Industry News). Observes Plavin, "Doing this in an election year is nothing short of amazing."
Due to the robust economic conditions of our time, inside and outside of aviation, an optimistic FAA forecast was expected — and was given. Across the board, the numbers and the projections are up:
• Airlines. U.S. air carriers in 1999 recorded an estimated 664.5 million passengers. They also logged some $8.6 billion in operating profits — slightly down from the 1998 record profit of $9.3 billion. For the forecast period 2000-2011, FAA projects air carrier activity will grow to one billion passengers a year.
The domestic large commercial aircraft fleet is expected to grow some 3.3 percent per year, from 4,312 aircraft in 1999 to 6,400 aircraft in 2011.
• Regionals. This is where the big increases are projected. Regional commuter airline enplanements are projected to rise 8.1 percent this year to 78.2 million passengers. They are projected to grow at an annual rate of 5.5 percent to 137.5 million in 2011.
The U.S. commuter passenger fleet is expected to grow from 2,237 aircraft in 1999 to 3,186 in 2011 — an annual jump of 3 percent.
• General Aviation. The fleet is expected to grow some 0.9 percent annually through the forecast period, from 206,500 aircraft in 1999 to some 231,000 in 2011. The growth projection for the turboprop/turbojet fleet should increase at an annual rate of 3.2 percent, says FAA.
• ATC. FAA says it has "an aggressive modernization plan in place" for the nation's air traffic control system. It will need it, say industry observers. FAA says aircraft operations at its air route traffic control centers will rise from 45.7 million in 2000 to some 59.4 million in 2011 — a two percent annual increase.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
Says ACI-NA's Plavin about today's air traffic congestion, "We have allowed the system to get out of balance." He says there are some 24 airports today that are severely congested, according to FAA, and that that number is expected to keep growing.
Norman Mineta, vice president at Lockheed Martin Corporation, long-term U.S. Representative who often championed aviation's causes, and chair of the 1997 National Civil Aviation Review Commission, told attendees that he too is concerned about ATC modernization.
"There is no single point of accountability," says Mineta, adding that FAA has become near-sighted regarding how to modernize the system and the agency has not focused well enough on the needs of the users. At times, he says, FAA has served as an impediment to ATC modernization.
For a full copy of FAA's forecast, call (202) 267-3355.