Federal Policies Lag Growth of International Travel

AIN Air Transport Perspective » November 5, 2012
The number of international travelers to and from the U.S. has more than doubled in the last 21 years and is concentrated at relatively few metropolitan gateways. (Photo: Bill Carey)
November 5, 2012, 9:40 AM

International air travelers pass through a relatively small number of “metropolitan gateways” or areas in the U.S., which over the last two decades have supported a dramatic increase in the number of passengers entering or leaving the country. But federal aviation policies “do not prioritize these metro areas,” according to a Brookings Institution report.

The U.S. market for international air travel has rebounded from the global recession of 2008 and is “booming,” Brookings reports in “Global Gateways: International Aviation in Metropolitan America.” Between 1990 and 2011, the number of international passengers entering or leaving the country more than doubled, to 163.7 million. The international share of all commercial aviation passengers increased from 15.3 percent to 20.4 percent.

Nearly all U.S.-based international passengers start or end their trips at airports in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas. According to the study, just 17 metropolitan gateways handled 73 percent of all international passengers starting or ending their trips in the U.S., as well as 97 percent of connecting passengers from other countries. Brookings defines a metropolitan gateway as the location of entry into, or departure from, the U.S., and counts through-passengers traveling internationally and making layovers or transfers at such locations. The study also counts “origin-destination” passengers who begin or end their trips at a gateway.

The New York metropolitan area led other gateways by far, hosting 21 percent of all U.S.-based international passengers. Ten percent of passengers either start or end an international trip in Miami, and 10 percent in Los Angeles. San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C., moved at least 3.5 percent; Atlanta and Houston each handled more than 2 percent. Las Vegas, Charlotte and Orlando rank among the fastest growing gateways.

While international air travel stands as one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. transportation network, federal investment policy lags that growth, the study’s authors contend. Instead of prioritizing metropolitan areas, federal capital programs concentrate more on “geographic equity than consumer-benefiting efficiency.” A major source of capital funding, the federal Airport Improvement Program (AIP) derives money from passenger ticket taxes, fuel taxes and other fees. It redistributes funding based on airport passenger levels, but significantly reduces the weight of passenger boardings above the 500,000 and one million thresholds, according to the study. The largest metropolitan areas generate the largest share of taxes and fees, but receive only 36 percent of AIP funding.

The authors recommend that the government recalibrate the AIP entitlement formula to “restore fairness to the system.” They also recommend a “targeted federalist international aviation policy” that coordinates airport investment plans.

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