In 2015, the FAA stated that

System-wide, air traffic has declined by 24 percent since peak year 2000. The chart in Figure 1.1 shows that air traffic volume is not expected to return to peak levels in the near term.

Traffic Graph 1997-2024

This is talking about traffic in terms of ATC operations.

My question: why was there such a drastic, sustained drop-off? I understand that commercial traffic dropped off after 9-11, but I assumed it had since returned to 'normal'. Apparently this is not the case, but are there any other reasons? Is it something with the metric? It doesn't seem like there are any less people flying, do airline fleets consists of larger jets than 15 years ago?

(Info from the Air Traffic Controller Workforce Plan )

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    $\begingroup$ Just taking a guess (thus a comment): Since this graph shows ATC operations and not passengers, would it have anything to do with consolidation within the industry? It could be that there is now one plane (carrier A) flying between AAA and BBB where there used to be 2 or 3 planes (on carriers A, B & C). It would be interesting to overlay this with actual passenger numbers to see if those have remained somewhat more constant or have recovered from the 9/11 and 2007-09 depression dips better. $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Jul 2 '15 at 13:02
  • $\begingroup$ @FreeMan number of passengers is decently correlated: rita.dot.gov/bts/press_releases/bts016_13 but note that the OP graph includes non-commercial traffic. $\endgroup$ – Federico Jul 2 '15 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Federico That link doesn't show prior to 2006, though, so it misses the peak shown in the OP's graph. $\endgroup$ – reirab Jul 2 '15 at 19:08
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    $\begingroup$ Now correlate that chart to the S&P 500 and the Baltic Dry Index... $\endgroup$ – Michael Feb 27 '17 at 1:24
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    $\begingroup$ This question (and all of the answers) assumes air traffic activity = commercial passenger flights. It doesn't! There's cargo, general and corporate aviation to consider. Recreational general aviation in particular was hit by high oil prices in 2008. $\endgroup$ – user71659 Aug 22 '18 at 5:27

Your air traffic controller's metric doesn't mean anything to most people. Here is what actually happened as measured by passengers carried, and it looks nothing like your graph.

enter image description here

The 911 attacks in the US caused a blip after 2000, and the world financial crisis caused another after 2008, but passenger growth has been growing exponentially since deregulation started in the 1970s. The answers trying to explain the graph as reduction in demand are not correct.

Aircraft size and frequency now match demand, and they are packed full. US domestic load factors went from 70% in 2002 to 85% in 2017, an 18% increase. Ryanair is hitting 95% in Europe. Aircraft are also getting bigger, or at least seats are getting packed closer together. MIT saw US seat capacity per departure increase from 165 to 178, another 8%. Ryanair only flies aircraft with 189 seats, and new aircraft will cram in 197.

Cheaper fares, lots of travelers, and a lot fewer empty planes flying government mandated routes. Since your graph only indicates a 20% drop in aircraft movements, this explains much or all of the difference.

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    $\begingroup$ While a gravedig, this is the real answer. Even the 2001 and 2007 dibs just caused global demand to flatline (NB: US demand plummeted, ROW kept growing. The US is much less important to the world than the TV would have one think.) More people and much more cargo are flying today than ever. Long-distance driving is largely a US thing; even if it's marginally cheaper to drive a full car than to fly, the added time cost well exceeds the lost income of anyone who has the need or the money to travel a long distance. $\endgroup$ – Therac Aug 18 '18 at 0:19
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    $\begingroup$ The question was about US traffic, while this graph gives worldwide traffic. This one for only US traffic gives a different picture (there were actually 2 dips), even though in the end the trend is still upward for the reasons you gave. $\endgroup$ – jcaron Aug 20 '18 at 13:19
  • $\begingroup$ I think just replacing the worldwide graph with the US version would make the comparison to the OP’s graph a lot more valid. Your call. $\endgroup$ – jcaron Aug 20 '18 at 16:15
  • $\begingroup$ Isn't the difference in the declining GA traffic? Both answers focus on revenue flights but the graph includes GA Traffic, and that has most definitely declined. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Aug 27 '20 at 20:23
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterKämpf You might try putting this in an answer, but from what I know GA operations in the US only totaled about 8m in 2000 and were still above 6m in 2018 while the OP's graph shows a 35m decline in ops. $\endgroup$ – Pilothead Aug 28 '20 at 16:13

It isn't just one thing, but a vicious cycle:

  • Airline travel is expensive. One person flying and one person driving end up about the same price once you figure in gas and hotels, but the airline will want that same price for each passenger, while you can fit up to three more people in the same car at practically no additional charge (the extra weight will slightly increase gas costs and at some point everyone you can put in a minivan won't fit in one hotel room, but the incremental costs still don't compare at all). This makes time practically the only advantage to flight, especially for a family group; if you have the time to drive, many people who need to get somewhere don't even consider flying as a viable financial option.

  • You choose your car, among other things, for a certain level of comfort; the airline sets up their planes for volume over all else. Even the smallest sub-compacts have more legroom (for the front seat passengers at least) than the average economy airline seat. Upgrade to first class and the ride's better, but then the cost doesn't compare at all.

  • Customer service ratings are at an all-time low. Flight attendants are moving further and further from the "stewardess" role they had in a bygone age when airlines lived and died by their service quality (because regulation gave them little control over anything else in their business model). Now they exist for little else than to make sure nobody dies, or worse, breaks Federal aviation laws. Get them on the plane, give the speech, make sure everyone's belted in for take-off and landing, then get them back off the plane, all without killing themselves or each other. Anything else the the flight crew does during the flight is gravy at this point.

  • The major U.S. carriers have practically all adopted Spirit's business model. The average person considering air travel today might think Spirit's the only airline that charges you extra for every single additional amenity or service, but in fact Southwest, a "discount" carrier, is the only one that still rolls 2 checked bags, snacks and drinks into the ticket; American, United, Delta, USAir, they all charge \$25 for the first checked bag and \$50 for the second, and most of them are also charging for any food or drink served on board.

    This is due to the hypercompetition on price, which is partially our fault as consumers. In a related but different industry, StubHub recently abandoned its "all-inclusive" pricing model, because it saw its sales drop by half due to StubHub being the highest price in most side-by-side comparisons. It's the same with the airlines; if you need a flight, you go to Google or TripAdvisor or Expedia, enter your route and the date window of your trip, sort by price, and pick one of the top three, maybe the top five. That means that anything the airlines can do to lower the price they show you online at first glance gets them the customers, and airlines wanting to keep the all-inclusive model, like Southwest, have to aggressively remind customers that what they see online is what they will end up paying when it's all said and done (hence the "Bags Fly Free" ad campaign that is now painted on their planes' cargo hatches).

  • Security is a nightmare. I remember a time, not that long ago really, when you put your carryon or purse on the conveyor belt, your coins in a dish, and walked through a metal detector. Simple. You didn't even need a ticket to get into the secured area, so you could meet whomever was flying in at their gate instead of at the curb. Those days are gone, and it will take a couple big technological leaps to get anywhere near that again (like being able to walk through a full-body scanner with your shoes and all your bags, instead of adopting the "felony stop" position in stocking feet with the contents of your briefcase laid out in grey tubs).

  • The expense of any kind of travel is redefining the idea of a "vacation". Leisure time overall has been decreasing since the advent of the Information Age with everyone interconnected and instant gratification being practical in more and more aspects of our lives. Those who still use their two weeks a year (if they even get that) for real leisure are opting more and more often for a "staycation", either staying home relaxing and visiting local attractions, or driving a relatively short distance to a hotel or resort (DFW has two big destinations, the Gaylord Texan and the Great Wolf Lodge, which cater primarily to people who already live in the Metroplex).

  • Video calling has created a difference between "face to face" and "in person". They used to be synonymous, but now the kids can not only talk to Grandpa, but see him, and he them, over a mobile phone or a computer with a webcam, at virtually no cost beyond the telecom plan. This development has more thoroughly revolutionized business travel; you no longer need to fly to the corporate office to get face time with an executive or have a big corporate meeting; you just sit down somewhere with a computer, camera and microphone.

All of these things have deterred all but the most necessary travel by air; getting on a plane is so expensive, so dehumanizing and so uncomfortable that it's only done if you have to get somewhere and can't take the time to drive there (or you have to cross a major body of water to reach it). That has reduced total passenger count, and since a flight only makes a profit if it's very near full, that reduces the number of flights airlines make. However, that decreases total revenue to offset the overhead of the airline (marketing, scheduling, maintenance, etc), so airlines cut costs by slashing services, making a flight on their planes even more miserable, reducing the general desire to fly, reducing passenger count. The vicious cycle continues.

This reduction has been offset somewhat by U.S. airlines "rightsizing" their fleets, opting for more flights with smaller planes. This gives passengers their choice of flight times while keeping planes full and pilots/flight attendants employed. Boeing is focusing primarily on this market in new plane orders with the smaller, more efficient 737, 777 and 787, while the original "jumbo jet", the 747, is on its way out of most passenger fleets and the A380 is struggling outside a couple relative niche buyers like Emirates and Qantas that specialize in ultra-long-haul flights.

Increased air cargo flights have also made up some of the difference; boxes don't care nearly as much about being stacked like sardines in an old aircraft (when was the last DC-10/MD-11 you flew in as a passenger? UPS still has dozens of them in the cargo fleet) with minimal amenities, so thanks to the success of e-commerce, FedEx and UPS are raking it in and growing their air fleets (though they passed on the A380 in part due to Airbus not prioritizing the cargo variant), while American is scheduled to reduce its fleet by 30 planes this year and is still struggling to report a profit even with prices and services cut to the bone.

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    $\begingroup$ What do you mean by "Airbus can't keep up with A380 orders?" If you mean that Airbus is getting a lot of A380 orders, that's very incorrect. The A380 is having a very hard time selling right now, just like the 747. Their CFO recently stated (this year) that they may shut down production on the A380. Boeing was right. Airbus basically already acknowledged this by releasing the A350 (which is selling very well) and the A330neo (which is also selling well.) As of the end of May, exactly zero A380s have been ordered in 2015. $\endgroup$ – reirab Jul 2 '15 at 19:14
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, there have been 317 total orders, but most of those are old. Additionally, several customers, including Air France-KLM, have indicated that they will cancel some or all of their remaining orders in favor of smaller aircraft (i.e. probably the A330neo or A350 in the case of Air France.) See this article. According to Airbus' own CFO, if they're unable to get enough customers to commit to buying a re-engine A380, they'll likely stop production within a few years. $\endgroup$ – reirab Jul 2 '15 at 19:43
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    $\begingroup$ As for 787, yeah, it had some startup problems, but it's selling exceptionally well. In the span of a decade, it has accumulated 1,105 orders. 777 is also selling extremely well, as are A330 and A350. 747 and A380, not so much. Delta recently chose to order a mix of 50 A330neos and A350s just because it couldn't get more 787 production slots soon enough. $\endgroup$ – reirab Jul 2 '15 at 19:47
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    $\begingroup$ I think we're speaking the same language. A380 demand was initially higher than Airbus could meet, but to your point it's fallen off. Airbus had predicted a move by airlines to fewer flights with larger planes to reduce flight crew staffing and relieve congestion at major airports. That market has not materialized; airlines have favored smaller, more efficient aircraft and more flights. An airline can cancel one flight in ten if the route is underbooked; if it only schedules two or three flights a day that flexibility really doesn't exist. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Jul 2 '15 at 19:52
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    $\begingroup$ Well as I mentioned, the Emirates flight schedule is practically all trans-con; there are a few hops to Riyadh, Kuwait, Tel Aviv etc. but beyond that you're looking at flights from Milan, CDG, Heathrow, Moscow, Beijing, etc, and then they get really long (IAH, SFO and DFW are on the top 30). As far as why, this all feeds into the UAE's plan; to transition from oil wealth as a primary economic driver into high-end tourism, business and retirement; they want to be the Orlando of the Eastern Hemisphere and it seems to be working. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Jul 2 '15 at 21:01

People travel by air for mainly two reasons, and both require money:

  • business
  • pleasure

Since the source of that chart is FAA, my answer is mostly related to USA, but it can generalized globally.


Years leading to 2000, there was an economic boom. Air travel was increasing. By 2000-2001 (before 9/11), dot-com collapse resulted in a recession. This forced companies to lay offs and not to pay for air travel.

Economy started to get better after that, and then the recession of 2007-2008 hit. Companies learnt an even bigger lesson not to spend money on luxuries.

Economy started to get better again. Air travel started to increase again, but did not peak and is not predicted to peak to the same level as of 1999-2000.

Why? After a financial calamity, companies and people are very reluctant to adopt same spending behaviors as before the calamity, since there is an uncertainty of it happening again.

Airline Mergers

After 2000, airlines was one of the industries which was hit the hardest. So they wanted to maximize their profits. That means that all airplane seats must be occupied. This resulted in fewer flights, and also increasing codeshares.

Many airlines acquired other airlines. In the US alone, several major airlines merged together, eliminating redundant and unneeded flights. This reduced air traffic too.

General Aviation

Also with economic issues, people started to spend less on their hobbies. As a lot of GA traffic occurs on airports with ATC, this reduced ATC operations too.

Larger Airplanes

As Federico has mentioned, only A380 is the larger aircraft so this reason is not likely to contribute for decline in air traffic. On top of that, A380 is mostly used on international routes whereas the majority of air traffic is domestic.

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    $\begingroup$ You might also consider the growth of alternatives to business travel, such as cheap and easy access to video conferencing over the internet. $\endgroup$ – alephzero Jul 2 '15 at 14:27
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    $\begingroup$ In "This resulted in fewer flights and codeshares", I assume "fewer" is supposed to apply only to "flights". If so, it would be much clearer to write "... fewer flights and more codeshares." Also, I'm not sure that it's relevant that the A380 is the only new big plane in the period. Replacing a regional jet with a 737 would still be a case of using larger planes, even though a 737 isn't particularly large. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jul 2 '15 at 15:27
  • $\begingroup$ Lots of assertions here...some quantitative info would be nice ;) $\endgroup$ – digitgopher Jul 2 '15 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ @digitgopher Assertions? Quantitative info? I talked about two slumps we had in the last 15 years, and several airline mergers. I linked the Wikipedia articles for details about those events. I had witnessed both recessions first hand. What do you need as quantitative info? $\endgroup$ – Farhan Jul 2 '15 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Farhan Some examples: "fewer flights"...numbers on this? "several major airlines merged together..."...exactly how many and are there any documented effects? Overall I like your thoughts, they are helpful. $\endgroup$ – digitgopher Jul 2 '15 at 18:51

As you can see the steepest drop is not around 2001, but between 2007 and 2009, the years when the current financial crisis began, it is reasonable to assume that many passengers remained home because of that.

Concerning the size of the aircraft, except for the launch of A380 in october 2007 with Singapore Airlines, I would say that it hasn't increased significantly over the last 15 years.

  • $\begingroup$ 2008-2009 does match nicely with the finance graphs, but the rest doesn't really correlate too well. $\endgroup$ – digitgopher Jul 2 '15 at 8:34
  • $\begingroup$ @digitgopher It is not given that once finance starts moving up, everything else follow suit. You should compare to average expenses per household (or along such lines) but at that point I think you would be better off on Economics.SE $\endgroup$ – Federico Jul 2 '15 at 8:37
  • $\begingroup$ The financial crisis doesn't explain the 13 year trend. And why would you say the size hasn't increased significantly? I would be happy to upvote a more detailed answer. $\endgroup$ – digitgopher Jul 2 '15 at 18:47
  • $\begingroup$ @digitgopher the financial crisis explains the biggest drop, as you also agreed upon, I made no mention of the trend. The size hasn't changed because new ariplanes are not bigger than the old ones, except for the A380. Not upvoting I can understand, downvoting means that there is at least some mistake. $\endgroup$ – Federico Jul 2 '15 at 18:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Federico Actually, lots of newer airplanes are substantially larger than old ones. Even some of the new regional jets are almost the size of old 737s. New 737s are almost the size of 757s (737-900ER.) 777 also grew substantially with the -300ER and -200LR. 747 grew substantially with the -400 then again with the -8. $\endgroup$ – reirab Jul 2 '15 at 19:19

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