10.08.2009 Policy Points

Leaving on a Jet Plane

new report from The Bookings Institution analyzes the state of air travel in the United States and flags the challenges that will need to be addressed when economic growth returns. Specifically, the report argues that that too much of the nation’s commercial air system is focused on heavily trafficked, inefficient short corridors connecting a handful of metro areas.

Key findings include the following:

  • Some 99% of all airline passengers (annualized share) travel between or through one of the nation’s 100 largest metro areas. And 61% of all passengers are heading ultimately to one of the nation’s 25-largest metros.
  • Half of all airline flights operate on routes of 500 miles or less with the busiest routes operating between a handful of metro areas (e.g. Los Angeles-San Francisco; New York-Washington, DC).
  • The nation’s 26 largest metro areas (especially New York) are responsible of an increasing share of all airline delays.


Among its recommendations, the report calls for addressing the severe “logistical, economic, and environmental” challenges associated with the growth in short-haul air travel, growth caused in large part by an absence of meaningful transportation alternatives. Argue the authors:

The intrinsic connection between economic growth and commercial aviation will force infrastructure investments to match upcoming economic growth. In turn, those investments must target two critical systemic elements: the large volume of environmentally and spatially inefficient flights under 500 miles and the country’s critical 26 metropolitan hubs.

In response, the federal government must address these implications and implement targeted reforms. Metropolitan areas should be empowered to enact congestion-management policies. Air travel statistics must be utilized when selecting high-speed rail investments. And the federal government simply must accelerate the deployment of available technologies to create more capacity within the current system.

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