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.