Air transportation in the United States

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An aircraft from the United States landing at London Heathrow Airport. Traveling by air is the most popular means of long-distance passenger travel in the US.

The United States has advanced air transportation infrastructure which utilizes approximately 5,000 airports with paved runways. In terms of passengers, seventeen of the world's thirty busiest airports in 2004 were in the U.S., including the world's busiest, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. In terms of cargo, in the same year, twelve of the world's thirty busiest airports were in the U.S., including the world's busiest, Memphis International Airport.[1] Private aircraft are also used for medical emergencies, government agencies, large businesses, and individuals, see general aviation.

Due to the geography of the United States and the generally large distances between major cities, air transportation is the preferred method of travel for trips over 300 miles (480 km), such as for business travelers and long distance vacation travelers. For cities closer together, such as Boston and New York City, Philadelphia and Washington D.C., air travel does not carry the majority of intercity traffic.[citation needed]



Terminal 4 of John F. Kennedy International Airport, the busiest international air passenger gateway to the United States


Public airports are usually constructed and operated by local governments. The main exceptions are on military bases. Like highways and passenger rail, the federal government subsidizes air travel with $14 billion of federal funds going to airport operations in 2002.[2]

Security & Regulation[edit]

Air transportation in the United States is regulated by the TSA, an agency of the US Department of Homeland Security. Passengers must provide a valid federal or state-issued ID in order to be allowed onto a flight.[3] A person must also go through a pat-down procedure or a body scan before boarding a flight to ensure that they have no prohibited items.[4] These security policies have been adopted by the US government ever since the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks in which terrorists managed to hijack several commercial airliners. Items that are prohibited on airplanes include firearms, tools, or other objects that can be used as weapons, explosive or flammable materials, and other dangerous or debilitating chemicals or substances.[5]


Passenger airlines[edit]

There is no single national flag airline; passenger airlines in the United States have always been privately owned. There are over 200 domestic passenger and cargo airlines and a number of international carriers. The major international carriers of the U.S. are Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, United Airlines and US Airways. Low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines operates no international routes, but has grown its domestic operations to a size comparable to the major international carriers. There is currently no government regulation of ticket pricing, although the federal government retains jurisdiction over aircraft safety, pilot training, and accident investigations (through the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board). The Transportation Security Administration provides security at airports.

With numerous airlines competing for traffic on the same intercity routes, ticket prices tend to be very competitive resulting in low industry profit margins, around .1% in 2012.[6] This has led to frequent airline bankruptcies when ridership declines during economic recessions, jet fuel price increases, and other developments such as the September 11th terrorist attacks. Many airlines operate on a "hub and spoke" model. This system gives the predominant airline in a given airport a strong competitive position as it feeds passengers to and from the hub, maximizing the number of passengers on each flight. Examples of airline hubs include United Airlines in Houston and Chicago, Delta Air Lines in Atlanta, Detroit, and Seattle, US Airways in Charlotte and Philadelphia, and American Airlines in Dallas and Miami.

Air cargo[edit]

Air cargo comprises a large number of daily flights in the United States and are operated by private parcel companies such as FedEx and United Parcel Service. These organizations operate some of the largest fleets in the world. Most air cargo moved by these organizations is time sensitive overnight and 2nd day parcels. The U.S. Postal Service also moves much of its letters and time sensitive parcels via air, but on regularly scheduled passenger flights. At one time the U.S. Mail charged a premium for letters sent by airmail, but no longer does so except for overnight express mail.

Air traffic control[edit]

National Airspace System[edit]

Next Generation Air Transportation System[edit]


Ranking of Major Airports by Lowest
On-Time Arrival Performance (2007)[7]
Airport % on time
New York- LaGuardia 58.48
Newark 59.45
New York- JFK 62.84
Chicago- O'Hare 65.88
Philadelphia 66.54
Boston 69.68
San Francisco 69.75
Miami 70.99
Charlotte Douglas 71.30
Seattle-Tacoma 71.43
Largest 32 airports average 73.03

Airline delays have been the subject of some controversy, prompting a GAO audit and Congressional debate in 2007-08.[8]

Roughly one in four passengers experienced a passenger trip delay in 2007 and the average duration of delay experienced by these passengers was 1 hour 54 minutes.[9] 24% of flights were delayed and 2% were cancelled entirely.[10] Overall, passengers were delayed 320 million hours in 2007 with an estimated deadweight economic loss of up to $41 billion.[11]

An average of 40% of passenger aircraft delays in the U.S. originated in the New York metropolitan area, some in the area and others due to cascading effects.[9] One-third of aircraft in the national airspace system move through the New York area at some point during a typical day.[11]

To deal with delays, takeoff and landing scheduling caps have been imposed on certain urban airports at various times since 1968, including Washington Reagan National, Chicago O'Hare, and the three New York airports.[12] Other short-term measures have been taken, including minor procedural changes, use of military airspace on peak travel days, and appointment of a "New York Airspace Czar" (Director for the New York Area Program Integration Office). The New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia airspace is being "redesigned" incrementally, with completion estimated in 2012.[13] The Bush Administration announced plans to auction some takeoff and landing slots at the New York airports, but plans were canceled by the Obama administration.

Longer-term solutions include increasing capacity by building more runways, and implementing the Next Generation Air Transportation System which would allow more direct flight paths.

Network statistics[edit]

  • Airports: 14,951 (2008 est.)[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Memphis maintains hold as largest cargo airport by weight". 2009-02-04. Retrieved 2009-02-04. 
  2. ^ U.S. Transportation Subsidies
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ Reed, Ted. "Airlines, Not Yet Where They Want To Be, Make 21 Cents Per Passenger". Forbes. Retrieved 2014-06-24. 
  7. ^ GAO report, p. 12
  8. ^ GAO-08-934T, Statement of Susan Fleming, Director Physical Infrastructure Issues, in Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security, Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, U.S. Senate. "NATIONAL AIRSPACE SYSTEM: DOT and FAA Actions Will Likely Have a Limited Effect on Reducing Delays during Summer 2008 Travel Season. July 15, 2008
  9. ^ a b GAO report, p. 10
  10. ^ GAO report, p.8
  11. ^ a b GAO report, p. 1
  12. ^ GAO report, p. 6
  13. ^ GAO report, summary
  14. ^ a b "CIA — THe World Factbook — United States". Retrieved 2009-06-14. 

External links[edit]