Despite a drop in air traffic after the September 11 terrorist attacks, air travel returned to 2000 levels within three years and exceeded them in 2004. Industry forecasts predict growth in airline passenger traffic of around 4.3 percent per year. Commercial aviation is expected to exceed one billion passengers by 2015. The system is nearing the point of saturation, with limited ability to grow unless major changes are brought about.

Adding to the growth challenge, users of the NAS cover a wide spectrum in pilot skill and experience, aircraft types, and air traffic service demands, creating a challenge to the NAS to provide a variety of services that accommodate all types of traffic. NAS users range from professional airline, commuter, and corporate pilots to single-engine piston pilots, as well as owner-operators of personal jets to military jet fighter trainees.


Though commercial air carrier aircraft traditionally make up less than 5 percent of the civil aviation fleet, they account for about 30 percent of the instrument operations flown in civil aviation. Commercial air carriers are the most homogenous category of airspace users, although there are some differences between U.S. trunk carriers (major airlines) and regional airlines (commuters) in terms of demand for ATC services. Generally, U.S. carriers operate large, high performance airplanes that cruise at altitudes above 18,000 feet. Conducted exclusively under IFR, airline flights follow established schedules and operate in and out of larger and betterequipped airports. In terminal areas, however, they share airspace and facilities with all types of traffic and must compete for airport access with other users. Airline pilots are highly proficient and thoroughly familiar with the rules and procedures under which they must operate.

Some airlines are looking toward the use of larger aircraft, with the potential to reduce airway and terminal congestion by transporting more people in fewer aircraft. This is especially valuable at major hub airports, where the number of operations exceeds capacity at certain times of day. On the other hand, the proliferation of larger aircraft also requires changes to terminals (e.g., double-decker jetways and better passenger throughput), rethinking of rescue and fire-fighting strategies, taxiway fillet changes, and perhaps stronger runways and taxiways.

Commuter airlines also follow established schedules and are flown by professional pilots. Commuters characteristically operate smaller and lower performance aircraft in airspace that must often be shared by general aviation (GA) aircraft, including visual flight rules (VFR) traffic. As commuter operations have grown in volume, they have created extra demands on the airport and ATC systems. At one end, they use hub airports along with other commercial carriers, which contributes to growing congestion at major air traffic hubs. IFR-equipped and operating under IFR like other air carriers, commuter aircraft cannot be used to full advantage unless the airport at the other end of the flight, typically a small community airport, also is capable of IFR operation. Thus, the growth of commuter air service has created pressure for additional instrument approach procedures and control facilities at smaller airports. A growing trend among the major airlines is the proliferation of regional jets (RJs). RJs are replacing turboprop aircraft and they are welcomed by some observers as saviors of high-quality jet aircraft service to small communities. RJs are likely to be a regular feature of the airline industry for a long time because passengers and airlines overwhelmingly prefer RJs to turboprop service. From the passengers’ perspective, they are far more comfortable; and from the airlines’ point of view, they are more profitable. Thus, within a few years, most regional air traffic in the continental U.S. will be by jet, with turboprops filling a smaller role.

FAA and industry studies have investigated the underlying operational and economic environments of RJs on the ATC system. They have revealed two distinct trends: (1) growing airspace and airport congestion is exacerbated by the rapid growth of RJ traffic, and (2) potential airport infrastructure limitations may constrain airline business. The FAA, the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development (CAASD), major airlines, and others are working to find mitigating strategies to address airline congestion. With nearly 2,000 RJs already in use—and double that expected over the next few years—the success of these efforts is critical if growth in the regional airline industry is to be sustained. [Figure 1-8]



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