NextGen to fuel growth in air travel, FAA says

 - March 30, 2010, 5:49 AM

Key airspace safety and modernization efforts contained in the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) will play a vital role in spurring long-term sustained growth in air travel and the nation’s overall economic health, the FAA predicts in its annual aviation forecast.

For general aviation, the agency expects the number of fixed-wing turbine aircraft to grow at a rate of 3.1 percent a year over the 2010 to 2030 forecast period, jets at 4.2 percent, fixed-wing pistons at just 0.1 percent per year and rotorcraft at 2.8 percent a year.

The FAA characterizes the current low-level growth rate for business aircraft as a product of “unique circumstances that will dissipate over time.” These include the backlash from the big three automakers’ taking separate corporate jets to Washington to ask for government handouts, scathing criticism from Congress during the bailout process and the overall state of the economy.

“Despite the hard impact of the recession felt in the business jet market, the forecast calls for robust growth in the long term and predicts business usage of general aviation aircraft will expand at a faster pace than that for personal/ recreational use,” analysts wrote.

The FAA forecast predicts that general aviation hours flown will increase from 23.3 million in 2009 to 38.9 million in 2030, paced by a 4.6-percent annual growth rate for fixed-wing turbines and a rotorcraft rate of 2.8 percent per year.
On the commercial side of the ledger, the FAA expects domestic mainline and regional airline enplanements to increase 0.4 percent in Fiscal Year 2010 and then grow at an average of 2.5 percent during the remainder of the 20-year forecast period.

While the percentages are not impressive, the FAA points out that when compounded, the passenger growth over the forecast period represents an additional 500 million passengers. The agency now is predicting that the overall enplanement figure is not expected to exceed one billion passengers a year until 2023. That figure had been expected to be reached two years earlier before the recession cut into growth. Only several years ago the one billion mark was thought to be poised to topple by 2015.

The FAA said the level of activity and demand in commercial aviation is not expected to return to levels published in the previous forecast because of the blow to the economy from the Great Recession. The recession led to an erosion of wealth, double-digit unemployment, declining corporate travel budgets, and close-fisted consumers, all of which contributed to a softening
of demand for air travel.

“A bright spot is on the horizon, though,” the report said. “After four straight quarters of decline, the U.S. economy resumed growth in the fourth quarter of 2009, albeit driven by government stimulus packages that are winding down.”
The downturn in the economy has dampened the near-term prospects for the general aviation industry, but the long-term outlook remains favorable. “We see growth in business aviation demand over the long term driven by a growing U.S. and world economy,” forecasters said. “As the fleet grows, the number of general aviation hours flown is projected to increase an average of 2.5 percent a year through 2030.”

Unlike the hard statistics compiled from the airline side, for GA the agency relies on estimates of fleet size, hours flown and use from the “General Aviation and Part 135 Activity Survey” as baseline figures upon which assumed growth rates can be applied.

But the annual GA Survey lags the forecast by a year. So, when the FAA made its 2009 forecast, it was using statistics from 2007, which turned out to be “substantially below” what the agency believed them to be. Because it started with a higher baseline in 2009, forecasters projected a higher growth rate than turned out to be the case.

Based on the latest FAA assumptions about fleet attrition and aircraft use, along with General Aviation Manufacturers Association aircraft shipment statistics, the active general aviation fleet is estimated to have increased 0.2 percent in 2009, to 229,149 aircraft. Despite the increase in the active fleet, GA flight hours are estimated to have decreased 10.3 percent, to 23.3 million, in 2009.

According to the FAA, its general aviation forecasts rely heavily on discussions with industry experts, as well as the GA survey. FAA analysts have updated the assumptions to reflect more recent data and developing trends, as well as further information from industry experts.

The FAA also presents the forecasts and assumptions to industry staff and aviation associations, who are asked to comment on the reasonableness of the assumptions and forecasts. Their comments and suggestions have been incorporated into the forecasts as appropriate.

As could be expected, last year’s declines in both airline and general aviation flying resulted in the sharpest decline in traffic at FAA tower facilities since 1982, which followed the August 1981 firing of union air traffic controllers.

“Despite lower fuel prices, air traffic activity fell in response to weak demand caused by the recession and the poor financial condition of the industry,” the FAA statisticians found. “Total activity at combined FAA and contract tower airports was 52.9 million operations in 2009, down 10.4 percent from 2008 and 23 percent below the peak activity level recorded in 2000.”

Data suggests that the bottom of the recession was in June 2009, and Global Insight expects the pace of the recovery to slow and not be strong enough to halt the decline in jobs until later this year. “The recovery is not V-shaped, but instead is more W-shaped,” the forecast said. “It isn’t until 2011 that economic growth moves above 3 percent on a sustained basis.”