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New, technologically advanced and fuel efficient aircraft are being deployed regularly, however, that tells only half the story of the aviation industry. In the other half, progress at the nation’s airports and in the air traffic control system is slow, as investment has consistently lagged in the past 18 years, unable to keep up with demands of increased traffic and new technologies.

In 2015 in the United States there were:

  • 8,727,691 commercial flights for the year;
  • Approximately 7,000 aircraft in the air at any given time; and
  • 2.25 million passengers every day.

The U.S. aviation network includes 3,345 airports as part of the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS) with 3,331 existing and 14 proposed. Of these, 514 airports offer commercial service. There were a total of 786 million enplanements in the nation’s airports in 2015, up from 728 million in 2011; that number is expected to grow to 1.24 billion by 2036.  Additionally, air cargo represented 27% of exports and 22% of imports by value (though less than 1% by weight) in 2013. General aviation remains an important part of the aviation community, with more than 209,034 aircraft in 2012, down from 223,270 in 2010.

The economic activity attributed to civil aviation-related goods and services totaled $1.5 trillion in 2012, generating 11.8 million jobs with $459.4 billion in earnings. Aviation contributed 5.4 percent to GDP. General aviation’s total economic impact was estimated to be $22.7 billion in 2011, down sharply from $78.5 billion in 2009, however this number is expected to rebound in the coming years.

The FAA’s set performance goal is that no less than 93% of runways at NPIAS airports are in excellent, good or fair condition. In 2013 97.5% of NPIAS runways were rated excellent, good, or fair; at commercial service airports 98% of runways are rated excellent, good, or fair. The condition of existing runways is not an issue, rather the overall capacity of the busiest airports, as well as other airport facilities for handling passengers, cargo, security, and related functions. Maintaining and updating runways, including changes to meet new standards, is an ongoing airport operation.

In 2016, 81.42% of flights had an on-time performance. Delays were caused by air carriers (5.04%), weather (0.51%), the national aviation system (5.37%), security (0.03%), late-arriving aircrafts (6.22%), cancellations (1.17%), and diverted flights (0.24%).

The capacity of the nation’s airport system is affected by many factors, including the regulatory environment, airline business models, airport layouts, the manner in which the airspace is organized and used, airport procedures, weather conditions, aircraft types, and technology. While most of the nation’s airports have adequate airport capacity and little or no delay, a small number of larger airports experience chronic capacity constraints and delays regularly occur, frequently impacting the entire air transportation system. Additionally, continual change in the aviation environment is reflected in the evolving Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) standards, which imposes additional burdens on airports to upgrade airports facilities to meet changing standards.

The promise of the Next Generation Air Traffic Control System (NextGen) has been a long time coming, designed to increase efficiency and flexibility, while offering environmental benefits by using better technology to plot and guide flight paths.   NextGen is currently due for implementation across the United States in stages to be completed by 2025. NextGen improvements, including a reliance on the Global Positioning System (GPS), enhanced collaboration in the air traffic environment, use of digital visual and voice communication with aircraft operators, delivery of tailored weather information, and improvements to air traffic control equipment and processes, are expected to improve the use of available airspace and make better, faster dissemination of critical information. Essentially, NextGen transforms air traffic control from a radar-based system to a satellite-based one. Radio communications will be increasingly replaced by data exchange and automation will reduce the amount of information the air crew must process at one time. Enhanced technology will be used to increase routing efficiency, which will shorten routes, save time and fuel, reduce traffic delays, increase capacity, and permit controllers to monitor and manage aircraft with greater safety margins. Implementation is costly, and will require airlines to make expensive investments, but will increase flight efficiency and safety in the process.

By 2020, the FAA estimates that NextGen improvements, if implemented, could result in a cumulative reduction in fuel consumption of 1.46 billion gallons and a projected 41% reduction in aircraft delays. This would generate $38 billion in savings through 2020 for aircraft operators, the traveling public, and FAA.

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