Why Air Travel Is About to Get Worse

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Scott Olson / Getty

Travelers wait in line at O'Hare Airport in Chicago at the start of the long Memorial Day weekend in 2009

Expect Delays: An Analysis of Air Travel Trends in the United States
Adie Tomer and Robert Puentes, Metropolitan Policy Program
Brookings Institution; 40 pages

The Gist:
We all know that flying can be a miserable way to travel. Most of us have suffered airport gridlock, interminable flights in cramped seats or vanishing luggage — and those of us who haven't have surely endured the horror stories secondhand. If you're grumbling now, consider that airline performance has been above par — if far from stellar — since travel dropped sharply amid the economic downturn and that both ticket prices and congestion are expected to spike when the staycations end and customers return to the skies. A new report from the Brookings Institution puts air-travel trends into perspective. The U.S. air-traffic system relies on 26 metropolitan hubs to ferry nearly 75% of domestic passengers. Twenty of these are also arrival points for 94% of international visitors. Funneling flights to these bottlenecks has driven the average flight delay to 57 min. in June 2009, up from 41 min. in 1990. The percentage of flights delayed at least two hours also soared over the past two decades, from 4.3% to 10.1%.

Highlight Reel:
Why you can't avoid gridlocked hubs: "69% of all air travelers in the United States traveled exclusively between the 100 largest metropolitan areas. Another 29.9% of passengers traveled through one of the 100 largest metropolitan areas at some point in their trip. In sum, 98.8% of all passengers in the most recent twelve months passed through at least one of the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas. In the U.S., air travel is clearly a large metropolitan phenomenon."

2. On which airports you especially want to avoid: "There are six metropolitan areas that experienced worse-than-average delays for both arrivals and departures: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, Atlanta and San Francisco. And since all six metropolitan areas are domestic and international hubs, their poor on-time performance affects a large number of travelers ... The New York metropolitan area stands in its own category when it comes to poor on-time performance. New York generated both the worst arrival delay percentages (30.0%) and one of the worst departure delay percentages (21.7%). New York also ranked as the worst metropolitan area when it comes to average arrival delay time for flights landing at least 15 minutes late (nearly 69 minutes)."

3. On the financial difficulties airlines are enduring: "Since 2000, seven major domestic airlines have either filed for bankruptcy protection or merged with competitors due to financial constraints. These financial constraints also reduce the quality of the air-travel experience; news stories abound showing increased traveler dissatisfaction with companies squeezing fewer amenities and more seats onto every flight. Of course, it's hard to blame airlines for cutting amenities when the real price of jet fuel tripled from 2000 to 2008. Together with the recession's effects, these factors contributed to 3.7% fewer domestic and international air passengers on U.S. airlines in 2008 than 2007. This was the first annual decrease since 2002 and is continuing into 2009."

The Lowdown:
Three decades after industry deregulation, flying has transformed from a luxury into an egalitarian necessity, with real ticket prices dropping by half and new routes offering exposure to once provincial cities. But the corollary of viability has been increased frustration, with on-time performance plunging to near record lows. As you might have guessed, "there is no silver bullet" to fix the problem, the authors write. But they posit an array of sensible suggestions that could help curb soaring delays. Among the ideas are congestion pricing, airport privatization and high-speed rail systems as an alternative to flights shorter than 500 miles (routes that carry 31% of all passengers). Let's hope someone's listening. We may not enjoy being in the air, but we're grounded far too often.

The Verdict: Skim.