More air travel misery on the way

As the economy picks up, so will air travel. That could mean more delayed flights, according to a new report by the Brookings Institution.

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By Aaron Smith, CNNMoney.com staff writer

Do you expect to be better off financially in 2010?
  • Yes, a lot
  • Yes, a little
  • About the same
  • No, worse off

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- If you think flying is a miserable experience now, just wait until 2010.

Air travel has been declining since 2008 as a result of the recession. But it is expected to pick up next year, resulting in more headaches for travelers, according to a study released Thursday.

The study from the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, said the downturn in travel has a "silver lining of freeing up airport capacity and improved on-time arrival rates. But these silver linings will disappear...in 2010."

The result: More delays.

This adds to the current hardship of traveling, considering that in every year since 2000, at least 15% of flights have been delayed at least 15 minutes, the study said.

Part of the problem is the "antiquated" air traffic control system, and the difficulties in establishing the more advanced Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, which is still three to nine years away from implementation, according to Brookings.

"Once reason that policymakers can feel confident that such performance will continue to suffer is the reality that the same antiquated air traffic control system will be in place to manage our every-busier skies," the study said.

High-speed rail could free the skies

Air passenger travel in 2008 and 2009 has suffered its most significant declines since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the recession is to blame, reported Brookings.

Air travel in the United States experienced its first annualized drop in September 2008 since the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of 2001, and these declines continued through March 2009, according to the most recent data from Brookings.

This is in stark contrast to the gains that occurred between 1990 and 2008, when U.S. airports increased passenger and flight levels by 60%, the institute said.

Brookings offered several solutions to alleviate air travel congestion when it picks up again, including increased investment in rail corridors. This would help free up the skies, the study said, noting that half of all flights are between cities that are less than 500 miles apart.

The challenge for high-speed rail travel is that it must be able to compete with air travel. The study noted that "at distances of less than 400 miles high-speed rail can meet or beat air travel times, while the capability wanes up to and past 500 miles."

As part of his stimulus plan, President Obama is pledging $13 billion into an ambitious high-speed rail project.

David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the airline industry group, said that cutting capacity is not the problem, because it occurs on the "least popular routes." Also, he said the airline industry is reluctant to end short-range flights.

"We can continue to serve the small communities we serve today, and not eliminate it, as these studies suggest," he said.

Castelveter said the air traffic control system must be modernized. A change from radar to digital satellite technology would reduce the spacing between flights and relieve congestion, he said.

"Whether it's next year, or [the next] two years, the economy will ultimately recover and the industry will attempt to grow," Castelveter said. "Our great concern is the fact that this government has yet to move forward aggressively with modernization of the air traffic control system."  To top of page

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