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Fewer Passengers Cause Airlines to Cut Flights

The recession will keep more people - an estimated 14 million of them - out of U.S. skies this summer. But don't expect planes to feel less crowded.

The Air Transport Association airline industry trade group estimates 7 percent fewer passengers - 150,000 fewer a day - will be on airplanes in the U.S. June 1 through Aug. 31 compared with last year. Last summer's traffic also was off 3.6 percent from summer 2007, when a record 213.4 million people flew on domestic routes and in and out of the USA.

But planes likely will seem as full as ever because airlines have cut flights and routes or moved to smaller planes in response to fewer passengers. An estimated 195 million people will fly this summer.

"The weak economy has forced additional aircraft out of the marketplace, so despite fewer travelers, planes will remain near full," says James May, the association's president.

Delays could continue to be a big problem because of the aging U.S. air traffic control system and the usual development of summer thunderstorms, he says.

Demand for domestic and international air travel has been tumbling for more than a year, first because of high fares and fees imposed in response to record high fuel prices last summer, then as a global recession took hold last fall.

The association projects 6 percent fewer international fliers, or just 24 million passengers on international routes.

Travel to and from Europe - the chief international route in and out of the USA - is expected to be down considerably again.

There'll be 32 fewer flights a day across the North Atlantic this summer than last year, when there were 428 daily flights, says industry consultant Craig Jenks at Airline/Aircraft Projects.

That's despite the year-old "open skies' agreement that removed most route and landing restrictions between the U.S. and the European Union, which was expected to result in more flights and lower fares.

In fact, Jenks says, the number of passenger seats available on trans-Atlantic flights will be barely higher, just 4.2 percent, than in 2001, an average growth rate of just 0.5 percent a year.

"There's been huge negatives in the past seven years on the Atlantic," Jenks says. "One after another. Terrorism. War. Disease. Recession. ...It's all had a big impact"

But he says long-term prospects for cross-Atlantic travel are good. What's unclear, Jenks says, is when the market will see a return to more typical levels of growth.

"In either 2010 or 2011, we should see a rebound," he says.

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