Transforming the National Air Transportation System

 - October 10, 2007, 11:03 AM

Previously this column has addressed efforts within the federal government to transform our nation’s air transportation system. Policy leaders believe that the business model of traditional airlines has reached its limit and simply is incapable of meeting the need for efficient travel. In the words of several researchers at NASA and the FAA, the hub-and-spoke system is not scalable, which means that adding bigger aircraft to bigger hub airports does not solve the problems of delays. What
is needed, they argue, is transformation. To accommodate our nation’s increasing demand for mobility, we must change the way air transportation operates.

While government policymakers have yet to say so, a transformed air transportation system will encompass many of the features and benefits currently available to users of business aviation. What will change is the availability of travel options to a much larger segment of the nation’s population.

Airlines provide rather restrictive service, all things considered. Nearly three-quarters of airline passengers enplane or deplane at about 30 hub airports. About 90 percent of passenger activity occurs at fewer than 60 airports. Meanwhile, several thousand airports with runways suitable for business jets and turboprops are underutilized.

Business aviation is able to counter the inefficiencies of the legacy airlines and their concentration on hub airports by providing access to 10 times the number of airports and 100 times the number of locations. A recent survey of NBAA members indicates that the majority of their flights are to airports with relatively low activity levels. Only about one out of five business aviation operators flies to large hubs, and most use airports that lack FAR Part 139 certification, which is a requirement for scheduled airline service.

Adding to the lack of convenient airline service is a confusing maze of airline fares. It appears that there are almost as many ticket prices as there are seats on the aircraft. The business traveler who lacked the luxury of an advanced booking may pay considerably more than the tourist sitting in the adjacent seat. While low-cost airlines have emerged to serve several point-to-point routes, often bypassing the largest hubs, the service tends to be focused on high-volume markets. Accommodations can be spartan, and travelers are often reluctant to work on business matters for fear that a nearby passenger will see or overhear proprietary material. Increasingly, business travelers consider airline travel something to be avoided if alternatives are available and tolerated if they are not.

The answer, some say, is transforming the nation’s aviation system to provide more point-to-point service between the nation’s 5,000 or so public-use airports, thereby bypassing hubs and eliminating the congestion and delays that accompany busy airports. (Isn’t this precisely what business aviation does?)

Since demand between most location pairs may be low, some researchers as well as a few seasoned entrepreneurs believe that a strong but latent demand exists
for a small aircraft transportation system (SATS), possibly using the emerging breed of very light jets. Small jets would stay away from hubs, so the theory goes, by providing service close to the traveler’s destination. (Again, sounds a lot like business aviation.)

There is general agreement that without more places to land, delays will continue to mount. The cost and time required to build big airports or add a new runway to an existing airport are huge, lending credence to the concept of a highly distributed system employing small aircraft that can operate to and from existing small airports.

Others suggest that we need to restructure the ATC system to accommodate more aircraft within the airspace, particularly if swarms of VLJs populate the sky. Some point out that changing the ATC infrastructure is analogous to changing the tires on a speeding car. That comparison may be extreme, but any restructuring of air traffic management and control is a complicated, time-consuming process.

While there may be agreement that some things need to change, particularly as airline delays grow, answers to the question of what to do are neither obvious nor universally supported. It is clear, however, that change is inevitable.

Not all changes will be in commercial aviation. As more companies and entrepreneurs realize that good alternatives to scheduled airlines are available, we can expect growth in the use of general aviation aircraft for business transportation. Many of the procedures that NASA and the FAA are researching for possible application to a small aircraft transportation system, such as higher acceptance rates for IFR operations at nontower airports, lower landing minimums at typical general aviation airports and reduced pilot workload, have direct application to all aspects of general aviation, particularly business transportation.

The future will indeed be interesting as well as challenging for the business aviation community. Facilitating a new dimension in air travel, by encouraging higher utilization of general aviation airports and greater application of smaller aircraft for meaningful transportation, is a far more productive solution to congestion than mandating fewer landings at hub airports or placing artificial restrictions on airspace access.

It is essential that the policy leaders who are shaping tomorrow’s transformed aviation system appreciate that business aviation provides a model for the efficient use of aircraft and our existing airport infrastructure.