Debunked: FAA’s Latest 20-Year Forecast

It is that time of year, when FAA again parades out a 20-year forecast to prop up agency spending. These forecasts are notorious for being routinely exaggerated, i.e., robustly unrealistic, but the pro-spending bias keeps happening, since the exaggerations work well to dupe the public.

The opening line is revealing; compare this statement (“…All indicators show that air travel in the United States is strong…”) with FAA’s own data, which has been compiled into the table below.

This table shows combined total tower operations for all of the 500+ FAA and contract control towers, as documented in ATADS. Note that total operations peaked in 1999, and have fallen 26% since. The decline has gone on for decades, and has been steady; there is no concrete sign of a reversal.

Note also a paragraph deep in the FAA news release, justifying further expansion of infrastructural spending, on the weak FAA assumption that total airport operations will rise 19% in the next 20 years (from 51.0 million in 2018 to 60.5 million in 2038). Think about it; airport operations cannot even keep up with the positive growth rate of our national population. The data is clear: this industry has been declining. And, yes, the new forecast truly is based on FAA’s ‘assumption’, that a downward-flat trend for two decades will suddenly inflect upward.

While you critically study FAA’s news release, 24-page Forecast, and Fact Sheet (archived copies at the three links), ponder these notes:

  • The RPM metric is not a valid metric for industry growth. As the few remaining airlines continue to adjust schedules with increased hub concentration, passengers end up flying LONGER flights with added legs (origin-to-hub-to-destination, and even origin-hub1-hub2-destination, instead of origin-direct-destination). This increases RPM totals. If a routing via the Atlanta hub adds 24% to the total flight distance, RPMs also increase by 24%. The fastest growing hub right now is Seattle; when Delta sells tickets for passengers between California and the Midwest or East Coast, more and more itineraries end up flying via KSEA. Likewise, as FAA continues to over-accommodate airline excessive hubbing on the East Coast, we will see RPM increases on trips to the West Coast out of Boston, the NYC airports, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Reagan National.
  • Here’s another piece of spin, from the fifth paragraph of the News Release: “Air Traffic Modernization is rapidly moving towards satellite navigation technologies and procedures which will continue to allow enhanced navigation for more aircraft….” The truth is, there has been no rapid modernization because most of the GPS system was implemented in the mid-1990s! Also, the so-called ‘enhanced navigation’ is potentially a valuable improvement, but it is consistently rendered worthless by FAA’s failure to manage capacity, such as by imposing hourly flow limits. In other words, so long as FAA continues to allow airlines to over-schedule at a handful of airline-chosen hubs, ATC will have to continue to issue delays … as we routinely see at KBOS, KJFK, KLGA, KDCA, KSEA, and elsewhere. Using online flight tracking programs, we see thousands of delays everyday, in the form of gate holds, long taxi-out times due to congestion, turns and loops during the enroute/cruise segment, extended patterns to sequence arrivals via radar vectors, and long taxi-in times due to congestion. If FAA does not change their strategy, these delays will only grow.
  • The news release notes that there were 840.8 million domestic enplanements in 2017. If we fly a nonstop ticket from our origin to an airport destination, it will count as one enplanement, but ONLY if it is a direct nonstop flight. If we fly via a hub, or a series of stops, the number of enplanements increases (one enplanement per takeoff segment). Thus, a figure of 840.8 million enplanements in 2017 sounds like a big number, but actually means no more than 420.4 out-and-back ‘trips’. With more data, we could establish an estimate that is likely even fewer than 300 million actual full ‘trips’ per year, once we factor out extra trip legs (such as via hubs).
  • The news release also cites a 1.7% annual growth rate estimate for domestic enplanements, but how much of this will be due to increased hubbing? Even the simplest hub-related flights (e.g., outbound routed origin-HUB-destination, and return trip routed destination-HUB-origin) tallies four enplanements, which is roughly double the national annual average. If Delta, JetBlue, and others intensify hubbing, we can end up with an annual growth rate far exceeding the national population growth rate. But, with more hubbing, this would actually be less energy-efficient; lengthened flight distances and more stops would INCREASE fossil fuel consumption, having an even higher impact on climate and communities.
  • On average, U.S. citizens fly less than one commercial passenger air trip per year. And, importantly, some of us travel a whole bunch, many times per week. So, in this annual forecast, we really need FAA to go deeper with the data and attempt to accurately define just how elite air travel is. What percentage of our national population did not fly at all in 2017? And what is the trend year to year; are more people responding to climate change concerns by electing to travel less, or not at all? It could actually be that airlines serve an elite few U.S. citizens, more so than the larger ‘general public’. Considering the intensive fuel consumption (and impacts, upon climate change as well as health and neighborhood quality of life), it would be an appropriate national policy to stop subsidizing this industry and shift costs away from communities and onto the airlines and passengers; it would also be an appropriate national policy to impose a fee structure that discourages excessive flying by one passenger (e.g., no tax on the first two roundtrips per year, a steep tax for the third thru fifth roundtrip each year, and a very steep tax for subsequent roundtrips).
  • Aviation is the most intensive fuel-consumption activity in our modern lifestyle. It has enormous negative impacts, not only upon climate change, but also upon public health and neighborhood quality of life. Efforts to increase airport capacity do not reduce these impacts; they INCREASE these impacts.
  • Near the bottom of the news release, a paragraph glows about how this annual forecast is the ‘industry-wide standard’. More accurately, this annual forecast is a propaganda tool issued by a captured regulator, in collaboration with industry players and their lobbyists. It is disinformational, an improper use of public monies.

Elected Leaders Need to Work Together

Most of us are smart and rational people, who understand our growing problem with Climate Change and its connection to fossil fuel consumption. Those of us who apply critical thinking, to reason past the propaganda lines spun by the aviation industry cabal (aviation lobbyists, industry players, faux-regulators, etc.), understand this stark fact:

Aviation relies heavily on fossil fuel consumption, and is the fastest way for each of us to further burden our stressed atmosphere with more carbon emissions.

So, what to do about it? It seems to be a no-brainer. The growing number of responsible elected officials who are speaking up to address climate change … they need to join up with elected officials who are fighting to clean up the health and community impacts by excessive scheduling at the most problematic airports. On both counts, this is a fight for a healthy future, and to minimize the life-shortening consequences of too much fossil fuel consumption. Aviation is the perfect place to start.

One Congressional advocate for action on Climate Change is Sheldon Whitehouse, from Rhode Island. Click here to read a copy of a recent email, part of his ongoing campaign. Click here to see his 3/13/2018 news release for a recent speech.

A Call For Action by OUR Elected Officials

Activists in the Boston area are gaining support from elected officials, toward a health study that needs to be done OUTSIDE FAA. Here is a graphic; please enlist the support of YOUR elected officials, too.

(click on image to view the FairSkiesNation FaceBook page)

Speaking of needed Congressional actions, below is the current aiREFORM wishlist. Every one of these proposals is doable. We just need elected officials who believe in empowered citizens, and who are driven to clean up the bureaucratic waste and abusive authority found in over-matured (and captured) federal regulators, like FAA.

Eleven FAA Reforms Our U.S. Congress Needs to Demand:

For starters, Congress needs to pass legislation that will achieve the following:

  1. arrange with the National Academies Division of Health and Medicine for a consensus report of existing study findings on the harmful health impacts of the NextGen technology.
  2. remove from FAA the authority to evaluate, manage, and reduce noise and air pollution impacts by aviation, and place those authorities under EPA or another non-FAA agency.

Further, Congress needs to pass legislation that will direct FAA to:

  1. fully implement all noise and air pollution impact recommendations, from the non-FAA authority, unless FAA can clearly document that implementation would create a hazard (in other words, prioritize aviation commerce BELOW aviation impacts).
  2. remove incentives to over-expand hub airports, by phasing out passenger facility charges and allowing (even encouraging) divestiture of excess airport lands for local non-aviation use. PFC’s need to be capped at $3.00, then phased out; AIP regulations need to be reformulated to end the current coddling of industry. The current regulations create perverse incentives to grow excessively and operate inefficiently, while also making it that much harder for other communities to have viable commercial airports.
  3. draft revisions to airport funding regulations and other FAA documents, that empower local officials with the right and duty to engage local citizens in democratically deciding how their local airport may be used (to include allowing night-time curfews, reduced flow rates, banning some aircraft types for safety reasons, etc.).
  4. advocate for LOCAL authority and LOCAL problem-solving (thus, support all locally designed solutions, even if they reduce total air commerce at that location, so long as the solutions are non-discriminatory and do not create a valid safety hazard).
  5. create clear regulations – and aggressively enforce them! – to end helicopter thrill rides sold as ‘air tours’ (neither the recent NYC tour crash, nor the earlier Grand Canyon crash, should have happened … and they would NOT have happened, if FAA was truly regulating this industry).
  6. create a program that makes flight data easily accessible online, so as to maximize operator transparency for repetitive flight operations; the goal should be to protect citizens against abuse by rogue operators, and to empower citizens in achieving real local control.

And lastly, in relation to climate change, Congress needs to direct FAA to:

  1. impose a federal aviation carbon tax (make it a steep tax, with half the revenues going to non-aviation spending, overall tax reduction, etc.).
  2. impose an environmental impact tax on leaded GA fuels (again, make it very steep, and direct all revenues to environmental programs, such as the non-FAA office charged with evaluating, managing, and reducing aviation noise and air pollution impacts).
  3. replace most of the current aviation ticket taxes and other fees with:
    1. a passenger ticket fee proportional to flight distance (itinerary miles, NOT direct miles).
    2. a stepped ticket tax for commercial passenger seats (free, first two one-way trips or first roundtrip; single fee next few trips (e.g., roundtrips #2 and #3 in a year); double fee trips beyond that (e.g., roundtrips #4 and higher in a year).

UPDATE, 3/18/2018: — A discussion of item #1 of this Post was held at QSPS, and includes valuable insight by Cindy Christiansen; she explains the need for ‘independence’ and the nature of the proposed ‘study’, and also provides a link to a NAS Mission statement. Click here for the QSPS FaceBook discussion.

A Victory for the People: Shuster is Scrapping A4A’s ATC Privatization Scheme

Yesterday, Congressman Bill Shuster, chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, announced he is abandoning his multi-year push (going back to at least 2015) aimed at privatizing the U.S. ATC system. The idea was sold as a way to remove roughly 35,000 employees from federal service, but many saw that in fact, the idea was just a way to give more leverage to the airlines and other corporate interests.

This is a big victory for all of us who want FAA to stop being a captured agency, a faux-regulator that fails to serve people while serving only aviation commerce.

Below is an archived compilation of various news articles with the announcement. The actual Press Release has not yet been posted at Congressman Shuster’s website.

Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.


See also this earlier aiReform content:

Federal Way’s Mayor at PSRC, Expressing Numerous Concerns about KSEA Over-Expansion

Here’s a summary of some concerns opposing KSEA over-expansion, expressed by Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell, at a meeting of the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) executive board. Highlights and aiReform footnotes have been added. To view the three attachments in the summary, click on these links:

Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.

What’s Going On Here?

The pattern observed across the nation is that decision-making behind airport expansions is intentionally dispersed and distorted, so as to create plausible unaccountability for all involved officials. In this example, the industry (especially Delta and Alaska airlines, the two major hub players at KSEA) are getting FAA assistance to push through even more hub development, with two regional authorities offering cover: Port of Seattle, and Puget Sound Regional Council. It needs to be understood that both of these regional authorities are heavily biased toward commerce; they have no meaningful concern for impacts in residential communities, as evidenced by non-mention of these growing problems in Lance Lyttle’s POS slideshow.

What is the Biggest Distortion?

Lance Lyttle’s slideshow, especially the part pretending that the expansion is serving local demand. Quite the opposite, the two major hub airlines are simply adding supply and scheduling huge numbers of passengers THROUGH KSEA, to boost their profits. People in and around Puget Sound have not and will not massively increase their alleged ‘demand’ for air travel, as Mr. Lyttle is implying (i.e., the 41% growth in enplanements in just 5-years is almost entirely to serve people outside Puget Sound). Again, the expansion is solely for airline benefit, and entirely at a cost to local community health and quality of life.

Why is aiReform.com Archiving These Documents?

These documents are being archived to encourage people to study them, and to ensure the records remain available to future airport impact victims who may seek to study the past. It is hoped that this archiving will help people to become more effective in advocating for balance, to protect their homes and communities. Readers are invited to send their comments and reviews to aiReform, which may be included in Updates to this Post.


See also:

Did a ‘Vendor Error’ Reveal FAA Arbitrariness on NextGen?

Jondi Gumz’s article in the Monterey Herald, does a very good job explaining the problems people are having with FAA NextGen, not just under south approaches to KSFO, but at major hub airports nationwide. (‘Santa Cruz, San Lorenzo Valley residents surprised by new flight path noise’; click here for the online version, click here for an archived PDF with aiReform analysis).

Here are some points from an analysis of the article:

  1. RE: how FAA’s latest action shows they CAN immediately revert to pre-NextGen routes: Think about it … if FAA is able to immediately respond to a vendor error, shifting away from the problematic and impactful NextGen SERFR arrival and back to the legacy Big Sur arrival, why is it taking so long to revert to less impactful pre-NextGen routes at other locations, such as Phoenix? Indeed, out of one side of the mouth FAA has been saying ‘it is impossible to go back’, yet here, they are proving it is absolutely possible, and being done … but only at FAA’s arbitrary discretion.
  2. RE: the explosion of complaints nationwide: It is important to understand, the flood of complaints was not so much due to the application of GPS technologies (which, in fact, have been applied for more than two decades now), but is a consequence of FAA ignoring impacts while using these technologies to increase airport capacity. In a nutshell, FAA is serving the airlines, at the expense of communities. The airlines want increased ‘runway throughput’ at selected hubs, which enables them to densely pack more arrivals into smaller time slots, which can enhance profits. FAA is reducing separation between these arrives, partially by jamming some of the flights lower, to set up parallel streams of closely-spaced arrivals. On the ground, homeowners are being inundated with near non-stop noise.
  3. RE: FAA’s mishandling of the complaints: FAA is just delaying, as that best serves the airlines. This timeline could be expedited, but even if ordered to do so by a court, FAA has shown it will delay, delay, delay. This is one of the main reasons people are so upset about both NextGen and FAA: an indifferent and arrogant bureaucracy, captured by the industry it is supposed to regulate, refuses to even acknowledge the impacts by NextGen, and then refuses to serve the people (instead of just industry). Making matters worse, we lack a functioning Congress to demand FAA clean up its act.
  4. RE: the suggestion that NextGen is ‘new’: FAA has been ‘adopting NextGen’ since roughly 2003, and has been applying the same GPS technologies since the mid-1990s;
  5. RE: the oversold alleged benefits of NextGen: three points to clarify what is quickly summarized at one paragraph of the article:
  • FAA claims that NextGen ‘shortens routes’ and ‘saves time and fuel’, but NextGen actually offers very little improvements, since ATC has been granting long direct routes for many decades now, even back to the early 1970s.
  • FAA claims that NextGen ‘allows planes to fly closer together’, and it is absolutely true that ATC is jamming flights closer together, but the NextGen technologies have little to do with this change. The change is driven instead by FAA’s willingness to accommodate airlines, by reducing spacing (while simultaneously ignoring the impacts on residents below)
  • FAA claims that NextGen ‘avoids delays caused by airport stacking as planes wait for an open runway’. Well actually, NextGen is increasing delays; FAA is overly accommodating the airlines, allowing TOO MANY FLIGHTS in small time windows via tighter spacing, which in turn is forcing ATC to impose delays during the cruise portion of the flight, upstream from the final approach.

KSEA: Beacon Hill’s Fight for Health & Quality of Life

Archived copy of a good article, shared at Facebook, with some footnoted analysis by aiReform. This may help define what we need from our elected officials, to reclaim long-needed local control, so our airports are in balance with our local communities.

Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.

JFK: Evidence of FAA & PANYNJ Failure to Manage Capacity & Delays

The two screencaps below look at the ten most congested airports in 2000, as well as the airports for which the most money was spent expanding infrastructure between 1988 and 2002. They are screencaps from slides #17 and #19 of A Historical and Legislative Perspective on Airport Planning & Management, a January 2002 presentation by Alexander T. Wells & Seth B. Young.

In a normal economic environment, actions are taken to mitigate problems. Delays are one such problem. If the aviation sector behaved rationally, regulators (in this case, FAA) and operators (both airports and airlines) would make adjustments to reduce delays, even more so because the delays at the largest hub airports cascade into more delays at other airports.

The data in this January 2002 presentation shows that FAA and airport authorities are not acting rationally to reduce delays and are, in fact, doing exactly the opposite of what they need to do. That is, instead of scaling back excessive operations at the most congested airports, they are doubling down, spending even more money to enable even more over-scheduling (and congestion/delays) by the major airlines.

A look at the major airports serving the NYC-Philadelphia area is revealing. The four main airports all rank in the top-10 delay airports for 2000:

  • Newark (EWR, United hub): ranked #1
  • LaGuardia (LGA): ranked #2
  • Kennedy (JFK, major hub for American/Delta/JetBlue): ranked #5
  • Philadelphia (PHL, American hub being scaled down): ranked #7

The worst-case example is JFK. The role of this airport has always including serving as a major international hub, but, with the formation of JetBlue, a substantial amount of domestic hub traffic has been added. The airlines make higher profits when they increase hub through-traffic, but airline pursuit of higher profits is supposed to be balanced against impacts such as more noise pollution, more air pollution, and more surface road congestion. The airport authority (PANYNJ) and federal regulator (FAA) are supposed to ensure this balance, but they fail; unfortunately, both FAA and PANYNJ are instead focused solely on serving airline profits, and are thus blinded from seeing the impacts, such as under the JFK Arc of Doom.

How bad is the failure by FAA/PANYNJ regarding JFK? Well, notice the last column in the table below.Of the top-ten delay hubs in 2000, only two have seen positive average annual growth in operations, from 2000 to 2017. By far, the largest average growth is at JFK, averaging 1.5% annual growth in operations. Compare that with Philadelphia, which has averaged a 1.3% annual decline in operations. Is the Philadelphia population shrinking while the NYC-area population is exploding, to explain these two trends? No. These trends – and the subsequent impacts – are due to airline scheduling, motivated by airline profits. Philadelphia is scaling down because American absorbed US Airways, and since then, American has been shifting schedule capacity AWAY from PHL and TOWARD JFK, LGA, and DCA (yet another high-impact airport).

Clearly, if FAA wanted to take a decisive action in 2018, to reduce delays, that action would focus on managing capacity, such as by imposing flow rate reductions at JFK, EWR, and LGA. It would also focus on encouraging airlines to shift capacity back to PHL, DTW, PIT, CVG, CLE and other airports that are operating far below what they were designed to serve.

Ponder this fact, too: how is it that when we look at a top-ten list of delay airports from 18-years ago, we see that 80% of those airports have since scaled down while most populations have grown? How is it we are told by FAA and industry that airports and aviation are economic gold-mines, and yet this alleged booming industry is declining nearly everywhere? How much of the FAA/industry sales pitch is hot air and propaganda? Is there anything we are told by these players that reflects reality and nurtures an informed public process, serving everyone and not just corporate interests?

At Sea-Tac, Enplanements (and Impacts) are up 41% in Five Years

A Port of Seattle (PoS) News Release today crows about the airport setting a new annual record with 46.9 million passengers in 2017. (click here to read an archived copy, with aiReform footnotes added). As is the pattern, economic benefits are exaggerated, while environmental impacts are completely ignored.

Back in 2010, PoS went to great expense to draft a Part 150 study. Within that document package was a 44-page ‘Aviation Activity Forecast’. The key graphs within that study are condensed into this scrollable 3-page PDF:

Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.

You can dive deeper, looking at an archived copy of the 44-page analysis here.

One of the most disgusting statements in the PoS News Release is the leadoff to the second sentence, a classic example of greenwashing, which reads: “Demand for air travel at Sea-Tac Airport increased 41 percent the last five years…” Let’s be clear. The good people in and around Seattle did not suddenly wake up 5-years ago and start spending more money and increasing trips out of Sea-Tac. Nor did the area population explode anywhere close to 41% in 5-years. No, this alleged ‘demand’ is engineered by two airlines – Alaska and Delta – as part of their escalation of hubbing intensity, all in pursuit of slightly higher airline profits. More people fly INTO [KSEA] without ever leaving the airport terminal, either sitting in their cramped seat of rushing to catch another plane at another gate. Lots more people – up 41% in 5-years. This is NOT increased ‘demand for air travel’. And, it also means fewer people are able to get direct flights from origin to destination, without the increasing number of detours through KSEA; in other words, everyone loses, except the airlines and the airport authority.

Clean up your act, PoS: get the excessive growth at KSEA under control, and knock off the greenwashing propaganda, OK?

Hubbing Strategies Increase Impacts, But Do Not Create Sustainable Airline Profits

Airline stocks have been tanking lately, in no small part due to strategy shifts by United. In a nutshell, United is trying to design a broad restructuring of its three domestic-focused hubs in Chicago, Denver and Houston. Why? Because this trio of domestic hubs “…has profit margins that are 10 percent below the inland domestic hubs operated by American Airlines Group Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc….”

The situation is discussed in this Bloomberg article (click here to view source, or view the archived PDF copy below).

Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.

What is the most consequential quote in the article?

“As part of its strategy, United is boosting connections in its three mid-continent hubs by an average of 17 percent by adjusting its flight schedules, a process it’s completed in Houston and will commence in Chicago next month.”

In this one quote, United is making it clear that, for all major U.S. hubs, traffic growth is NOT about customer demand; it is airline schedule tweaking, to increase profits, that is causing the huge impact increases at major hubs, especially at KBOS, KJFK, KDCA, and KSEA.

Which airports/hubs are most monopolized?

Here are the main hubs for the four largest airlines:

  • American: Charlotte [KCLT], Dallas-Ft Worth [KDFW], Miami [KMIA], and Philadelphia [KPHL]
  • Delta: Atlanta [KATL], Minneapolis St Paul [KMSP], and Salt Lake City [KSLC]
  • United: Cleveland [KCLE], Washington-Dulles [KIAD], and Houston [KIAH]
  • Southwest: Baltimore [KBWI], Dallas-Love [KDAL], and Chicago-Midway [KMDW]

Most other major airports are either smaller market and dominated by Southwest, or they are duopoly hubs. Four duopoly hubs that stand out are:

  1. Denver [KDEN] – Southwest and United
  2. Chicago O’Hare [KORD] – American and United
  3. Phoenix [KPHX] – American and Southwest
  4. Sea-Tac [KSEA] – Alaska and Delta

Will hub concentration reduce over time?

No, not likely at all. The level of industry scheduling collusion, and the absence of real regulatory oversight, ensure this trend toward hub concentration will continue to intensify. As an example, look at the hub concentrations for 2013 data, at this aiReform Post. Note that nothing has changed: at the bulk of these 77 airports, monopolies and duopolies have only strengthened in the past four years.