USTA outlines plan to tackle US airports' lost connectivity challenges

Travellers in the United States of America (US) are suffering from a decline in connectivity, convenience and choice, according to Roger Dow, president and chief executive officer of the US Travel Association (USTA), with accessibility to many US airports much reduced today from ten years ago. And with Washington largely silent on the matter or even heading in the wrong direction, the USTA is embarking on an air travel campaign to fight for policies that are pro-growth and pro-traveller, said Dow.

“We will promote policies that encourage more air service and airline options…push to overturn misguided regulations… and make the case for strategic investments,” Dow explained in a keynote presentation at the Routes Americas Strategy Summit in Las Vegas this week.

The mission of USTA is "to increase travel to and within the United States", but to do this, it needs an air travel system that is growing, competitive and convenient. "That means an airline industry that is robust and profitable. It means airports that are world class. And an aviation system that harnesses the latest technology," said Dow.

But from the travel industry’s perspective, air service and infrastructure are inadequate, according to the executive. "Air travel today is less convenient and travellers have fewer options than ever before," he said. "Too many communities are losing service and it can be difficult or impossible to get it back."

Right now, expanding air service and airline options are "not high" on Washington’s agenda, said Dow, and instead the debate in Washington has been "whether to establish a non-profit air traffic control system, break our Open Skies agreements or make airplane seats wider".

The USTA now aims to change this. "Today I’m here to tell you that USTA is going to be deeply committed and actively engaged in getting Washington to address ALL of these challenges," added Dow.

According to USTA’s own research, in two-thirds of US states air service quality and convenience is worse today than in 2007. Nearly 60 per cent of US airports have lost connectivity over the last decade – which means fewer direct flights to fewer destinations, with smaller planes and fewer seats available.

With higher fares and less convenient service it makes it harder for local destinations to win more business – including more visitors, conventions and trade shows, especially a problem for small and mid-size cities. The USTA offers Modesto as an example. After losing air service in 2008, travellers now pay an extra $1.9 million each year in higher fares, longer commutes and more ground expense to access the city, according to the association. That’s approximately $66 per traveller.

This information will form part of a soon to be released comprehensive report with a detailed analysis of the state of air travel and specific, actionable policy solutions. “The report will be our blueprint for change and it will drive our new advocacy efforts in Washington,” said Dow. Its bold air travel campaign aims to boost investment in travel infrastructure, increase connectivity, choice and convenience for travelers and improve the entire air travel experience.

Its key areas will cover a preservation and expansion of Open Skies strategies to push down fares. Its analysis shows that fares are 32 per cent lower on Open Skies routes, generating at least $4 billion in annual passenger savings. “Expanding Open Skies would save travellers another $4 billion every year,” estimated Dow.

It will also call for a review of antitrust immunity with claims that global alliances now dominate in most markets and are effectively now working well for the interests of airlines, but not necessarily always for travellers. “Reviews of antitrust immunity should be more rigorous and comprehensive,” said Dow.

But perhaps the most pressing point is the issue of infrastructure and a call to modernise airports and optimise airport access. “We can make the entire air travel system work better for all travelers by tackling 'hub choke' at major airports like Chicago, New York JFK and Los Angeles,” said Dow. “That’s why we’re promoting an adjustment to the Passenger Facility Charge. PFC-funded investments can improve the travel experience, enable greater competition among airlines and boost economic growth.”

In a direct benefit for route development, USTA is also pushing to allow partnerships between destinations and airports. Right now, federal rules prohibit airports from using revenues creatively to boost travel. For example, airports cannot invest in destination marketing efforts to support air service development. They’re also barred from providing financial incentives directly to airlines to attract more air service.

“It’s time to end Washington’s micro-managing of airport budgets and allow airports to partner directly with destinations and the airlines themselves to increase options for travellers. We now need to start building a powerful coalition that spans our industries – bringing together airlines, airports, destinations, travel industry leaders and other stakeholders,” said Dow.

“We’ll rally around a bold agenda that will improve the system for everyone who depends on air travel. We’ll educate policymakers in Washington and alert them to the urgent need for change,” he added.

Richard Maslen

Richard Maslen has travelled across the globe to report on developments in the aviation sector as airlines and airports have continued to evolve and…