Further Evidence of the Decline in U.S. Air Traffic Activity Levels: 1990-2015 Data for 34 Select TRACONs

A common piece of disinformation repeated ad nauseam by pro-aviation lobbyists and the mainstream media is the idea that air traffic is incredibly busy today. It is not. In fact, it is severely depressed from levels that peaked nearly two decades ago. Other aiREFORM presentations have looked at this fact for various airport groups; this Post offers data about the collection of ’34 Select TRACONs’, where radar controllers handle the traffic within 40-miles give-or-take of all the major airports (and other airports normally within that geographical area).

The earlier presentations include:

All of the above links go to data about towers, while the data below is about TRACONs. Total commercial operations for 2015 for the ’34 Select TRACONs’ are down 25% from peak year, on average. That’s 25% fewer takeoffs, 25% fewer landings, and approximately 25% less ATC workload at the U.S. airports that handle nearly all commercial passenger flights.

Notes on methodology and interpretations for this TRACON presentation follow the scrollable/downloadable PDF.

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

Notes:

  1. data compiled from FAA’s ATADS/OPSNET online data portal.
  2. this dataset looks at ’34 select TRACONs’; the list of TRACONs is noted at the top of page one, and the name/location is listed within the data table.
  3. two key columns are ‘TOTAL OPS’ and ‘IFR COMM (AC & AT)’. The first, ‘TOTAL OPS’, includes all aircraft handled by the radar controllers, of all types (IFR, VFR, overflights). The second, ‘IFR COMM (AC & AT)’, combines ‘Air Carrier’ and ‘Air Taxi’ counts into a total ‘commercial flight’ count. Historically, FAA has obscured operational data by setting arbitrary aircraft sizes and calling larger commercial flights ‘air carriers’ and smaller commercial passenger flights ‘air taxis’.
  4. for each of the ’34 Select TRACONs’, the data is laid out in chronological order, and the peak year values for the two key columns (see note 3) are highlighted with red text and yellow background. Some data sets start much later than 1990; these cases are always due to new ATC facilities coming online, often replacing older TRACONs, but may also represent massive TRACON consolidations such as SoCal, NorCal, Potomac, etc. BTW, when multiple smaller/slower TRACONs consolidate, the new larger facility’s total operational count is used to define the pay level; thus, the controllers have often seen huge pay raises, post-consolidation.
  5. in cases such as MCO and MEM, the count drops drastically in the last year: these appear to be due to TRACON consolidation, also.
  6. the column just after ‘TOTAL OPS’ shows annual change; i.e., the percentage change (increase or decrease) for each year vs the previous year. Look especially at the data for CVG, PIT, and T75 (the TRACON for the STL area); these three airports (and the TRACONs that serve them) were decimated when airlines chose to close major hubs. Look also at CLE, D21 (the TRACON for DTW), RDU and S56 (for the SLC area). These are the next wave of ‘ghost-TRACONs’ caused by airline hub abandonment. One other point to ponder: when a hub is closed or abandoned, the industry is not scaling down but relocating. Thus, today, we have an enormous concentration away from abandoned hubs and into the remaining main ‘superHubs’, where noise impacts are going through the roof. And the problem is exacerbated by NextGen implementations that terminate past noise abatement practices. In terms of impacts, the biggest problem airports today are: ATL, BOS, BWI, CLT, DCA, JFK, LAX, LGA, ORD, PHX, SEA, and SFO.
  7. the far right column shows percentage of total operations that are commercial (air carrier and/or air taxi). Over time, with GA (general aviation) fading, and with FAA policies to press non-commercial flights away from the OEP-35 airports, this figure has tended to grow, and now edges toward 100% at today’s biggest superHubs.
  8. a main takeaway of all this data: DO NOT be fooled by the drumbeat of propaganda about congestion, crowded airspace, claims that controllers still use 1940s technologies, etc. It is all just propaganda, and it is coordinated – a collaborative effort by FAA, A4A and other lobbyists, and the airlines and other industry players. It is stated ad nauseam with a goal: to dupe the Public and Congress into the latest cycle of massive ‘transformative’ spending.