FAA: Air travel will jump to 1.15B passengers by 2034

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The number of passengers that are carried by U.S. airlines will jump to 1.15 billion people by the year 2034, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) projected Thursday.

The projection is a 404.5 million increase over 2013 passengers levels, when the agency said U.S. airlines carried 745.5 million passengers.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the expected passenger growth made the case for "new technologies" like the agency's proposed satellite-based air traffic control system that is known as NextGen. 

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“With healthy growth projected in air travel, the FAA has a tremendous opportunity to make a major difference in the industry,” Administrator Huerta added. “As the system becomes more complex, we’ll look to new technologies to meet the growing demand for safe and efficient air travel here at home and around the world."

The FAA has long planned to convert the nation air traffic control system from World War II-era radar-based technology that is currently in place to a high-tech satellite system. The agency has struggled to convince Congress to fully fund the program, would has been projected to cost the FAA about $22 billion through 2025, however.

If the NextGen system was fully implemented as it is currently planned, airlines would also spend about an additional $20 billion to upgrade their airplanes' computer systems.

Aviation industry supporters said that it would be more costly not to upgrade the U.S. flight system in light of the FAA's travel projection Thursday. 

"What the FAA’s release politely understated is that our air travel infrastructure is woefully under-resourced to cope with the demand we already have, let alone what is coming," U.S. Travel Association President Roger Dow said in a statement. "More net travelers are obviously terrific for the U.S. economy, but those who travel frequently are thinking about what our flying experiences are already like on a day to basis, and greeting the FAA report with very mixed feelings."

Dow added that "there is a growing body of evidence that the more traveling is afflicted by hassles and headaches, the more people simply decide not to travel.

"Unless we make the necessary investments in our infrastructure, this projected travel demand will not fully materialize, and the missed opportunity for the U.S. economy will be tragic," Dow said. "Our policymakers need to explore every funding avenue to make sure that our infrastructure keeps pace and the country realizes the full benefit of these upward travel trends for entrepreneurship, job creation and tax revenues.”

The Alexandria, Va.-based American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) said the FAA's forecast meant airports were also going to have to make major changes.

"The forecast data released by FAA today makes abundantly clear that domestic and international aviation traffic growth is a reality that will soon add hundreds of millions of people to already crowded airports and international arrival halls," AAAE President Todd Hauptli said in a statement.

Hauptli said Congress should approve an increase in the "passenger facility charge" that is currently included in the price of airline tickets to fund improvements in anticipation of the increased plane traffic.

The facility charge for airline passengers is currently $4.50, but the airport executive association is calling for it to be increased to $8.50.

"Airports need to plan and build now to meet that future demand but lack the tools necessary to do so with downward pressure on federal spending and with the purchasing power of the federally capped passenger facility charge falling further and further behind the very real needs that exist at airports across the country," Hauptli said. "Airports can't meet the needs of tomorrow with a financing system that was last adjusted nearly 15 years ago."

The FAA's full air travel forecast can be read here.

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