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Get Used to the Thanksgiving Travel Blues

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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If you have the great misfortune to travel through a U.S. airport today, do yourself a favor: Get used to the feeling. That cramped, crowded, get-me-away-from-these-people-now sense of claustrophobia is what flying in the U.S. will soon feel like every day -- not just the day before Thanksgiving, traditionally one of the busiest travel times of the year.

Already, a crowded Friday afternoon at Chicago’s Midway Airport might lead a harried passenger (like me, a few months ago) to complain, “This is worse than Thanksgiving.” Is it really? The U.S. Travel Association commissioned Cambridge Systematics, a travel consultancy, to answer that question. According to the group's analysis, a true “Thanksgiving rush” involves passenger volumes that run between 108 percent and 259 percent above an average day.

The consultancy based its calculations on passenger reservation data from Orbitz, as well as estimates of future demand from the Federal Aviation Administration. Those latter figures are particularly worrisome: Passenger volumes are expected to increase by 2.2 percent on average between now and 2033.

Already, the load is picking up. In 2013, 826 million people flew in the U.S. -- up 1.3 percent over 2012 and the highest total since the pre-recession year of 2007. Some airports are upgrading to meet expanded volumes, and the study takes into account completed and ongoing improvements in its calculations.

Nonetheless, even with billions worth of improvements in the pipeline, the picture for travelers remains bleak. Of the 30 busiest U.S. airports (accounting for 70 percent of total U.S. passenger flow), 13 already feel like the day before Thanksgiving one day a week on average. Three airports -- Midway, Las Vegas McCarran, and Orlando International -- suffer those levels of congestion twice a week. Worse yet, the capacity improvements that are currently slated won’t help much. Within six years, the study notes, 27 of the 30 busiest airports will be Thanksgiving-busy at least once a week.

That this state of affairs is unnatural should be apparent to anyone who flies outside the U.S. even occasionally. In 2011, the World Economic Forum ranked U.S. aviation infrastructure 32nd in the world -- behind Malaysia (an assessment that, in my personal experience, remains accurate). This is both embarrassing and somewhat predictable. Developing countries such as Malaysia strongly subsidize airports and airlines, viewing them as important marketing opportunities and first-impression makers. Needless to say, based on the dismal state of its airports, the U.S. doesn’t. Why?

The problem, as usual, comes down to money. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the U.S. faces a $39 billion airport investment gap between now and 2020, while the Airports Council International, a trade group, sees a much bigger $71.3 billion need to be filled by 2017. With Congress determined to hold the line or even cut discretionary funding for airport infrastructure upgrades, where will the money be found?

A good place to start would be with the Passenger Facility Charge added to individual air tickets flown from commercial airports. The tax, which individual airports can spend on FAA-approved safety, security, and capacity improvements, raised $2.81 billion in 2013. Yet it's been legally capped at $4.50 per ticket since 2000. That’s much too low, especially compared with similar taxes at top-rated international airports. For example, Singapore’s celebrated Changi Airport charges a passenger fee of $15.30, much of which is earmarked for capacity improvements.

Doubling, or even tripling, the PFC wouldn’t eliminate U.S. travel blues. But at least it would give U.S. airports the funding necessary to tackle their most immediate problems without having to seek grants, Congressional largess, or bond measures. And, best of all, it’d place more of the burden of improving airports on those most likely to complain about them: passengers.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net