Usage up even as share of GNP declines


September 24, 1990|By Tom Belden | Tom Belden,1990 Knight-Ridder News Service

Anyone who uses U.S. airports, highways or railroads -- and that is virtually all of us -- could grow worried about how little money is being spent on those facilities.

According to data collected by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others, the United States has been steadily falling behind other industrialized nations in its investment for public works infrastructure, including its transportation system.

Stated rather dramatically, over the last 30 years the country has fallen from first place to 55th among industrialized nations in infrastructure investment as a percentage of gross national product, the chamber recently testified to Congress.

The dwindling investment levels have occurred even as use of the air transport system has mushroomed: 454 million passengers flew on scheduled airlines in 1989, compared with 275 million in 1978, the year before the industry was deregulated.

The Partnership for Improved Air Travel, a lobbying group of airlines, aircraft makers and numerous aviation-system users, has been trying to stir up public support for increased spending on the system.

In particular, the partnership has worked with other aviation-interest groups to try to make Congress spend more of the $7.6 billion surplus that has built up in the aviation trust fund, which comes from taxes on airline tickets and aviation fuel.

The group's most effective argument may be this: As global business competition intensifies, the nation is in danger of falling behind other major industrial powers if it doesn't keep the transportation system working efficiently.

To bolster its case, the partnership recently commissioned its second survey of aviation's impact on the economy, measuring the effects of airline passengers and airports and the effects of spinoff businesses.

In an introduction to the report, Herbert Kelleher, chairman of Southwest Airlines and chairman of the partnership, asserted that the nation was likely to "suffer severe economic consequences" if it did not support growth in the air-transport system.

"In this era of global competition," Mr. Kelleher said, "the U.S. desperately needs to maintain its competitive advantages in transportation. . . ."

Both of the partnership's impact studies were done by Wilbur Smith Associates of Columbia, S.C. The first looked at aviation's impact in 1987, and the second updated the research, using data from 1989.

The latest study determined that air transportation generated $594.2 billion in economic activity in 1989, a 4.7 percent increase in inflation-adjusted dollars compared with 1987.

Air transportation and associated businesses employed 8.4 million workers last year, up 4 percent from 1987. Earnings from the jobs grew to $178.1 billion in 1989 from $155.4 billion in 1987.

Commercial aircraft manufacturing was an area of even sharper growth, with employment up 22 percent and earnings after inflation up 24.2 percent.


Airline fares have fluctuated wildly in the last six weeks, mostly going up in response to aviation-fuel prices that are 30 percent to 35 percent higher than before the Persian Gulf crisis. But some fares have come down for travel in the fall, a traditionally slower period for leisure travel, as airlines offer discounts in an attempt to boost sales.

All the activity has made the computers at Official Airlines Guides work overtime. Official Airlines Guides is the Oak Brook, Ill., company that maintains schedules and processes fare changes for 738 airlines worldwide.

The company said the number of airfares in its data base increased 58 percent in one month this summer, from 5.63 million in July to 8.87 million in August.

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