The number of U.S. airline passengers will grow 3. 4 percent annually and top 1 billion by 2015, a slower growth rate than projected last...

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The number of U.S. airline passengers will grow 3.4 percent annually and top 1 billion by 2015, a slower growth rate than projected last year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said yesterday.

Capacity cuts by carriers such as American Airlines and United Airlines led to slower-than-expected increases this year, said Bob Bowles, the FAA’s manager of statistics and forecasts.

“Seats are down from last year’s forecast,” Bowles said yesterday. “That’s brought the growth down.” After a slower increase this year, “The growth rates are similar” to last year’s forecast, he said.

American, United and other major carriers have lost $33 billion in the past four years, in part because excess flight and seat capacity have made raising fares difficult. U.S. airlines expanded capacity 7.6 percent last year from 2003, and average U.S. fares declined about 4 percent.

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This year the FAA projects capacity will expand by less than 1 percent. As a result, the annual growth rate over the life of the 12-year forecast for U.S. domestic passengers has fallen from the 4.2 percent predicted a year ago. Including U.S. carriers’ international passengers, the growth rate is 3.6 percent a year, down from the 4.3 percent annual increase projected a year ago.

Large passenger carriers are expected to increase passenger volume at a 3.1 percent annual pace. Regional and commuter carriers will probably post 5.5 percent annual growth rate, according to the forecast on the FAA’s Web site.

About 688.5 million people flew on U.S. carriers last year, the FAA said. That number will grow to 717.5 million this year, 754.9 million in 2006 and 1.05 billion by 2016, the agency said. The FAA’s annual passenger forecast is intended to help the government and industry plan for aviation capacity needs.

The agency said passenger volume this year will return to levels set before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.

“Commercial operations at our major airports are within 2 percent of pre-9/11 levels,” FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said in a speech yesterday in Washington, D.C. “The demand for seats is back. We predicted it last year, and we were right.”

Though the FAA faces spending cuts for runways, air-traffic control equipment and buildings, Blakey said she was confident there would be enough money to accommodate the growth in air traffic.

“We are redesigning airspace, deploying new software that will help increase capacity, and putting new procedures in place,” Blakey said. “We will be ready.”

Lawmakers and aviation advocates are not so sure.

Building is not keeping up with the increase in passengers, said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association. “That just spells congestion and delays for passengers.”

Already, flights have been limited at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport because too many planes were trying to take off and land, causing delays throughout the country.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, pointed out the administration has proposed $77 million in cuts for air traffic control modernization, in addition to $400 million cut this year. In 2004, the FAA was authorized to spend $2.9 billion.

“All indications are that air traffic will continue to grow,” Murray said. “Yet the Bush administration has decided that now is the time to impose dramatic cuts in our investment at improving safety and expanding capacity at our airports.”

David Plavin, president of the Airports Council International-North America, said the problem is not just the increase in passenger traffic, but that planes are getting smaller. Small planes place just as much a burden on the air traffic system as large planes.

But Blakey said the dollars for airport runways and buildings would still be twice what it was in the late 1990s, when airports received about $1.5 billion. In September, she said, the FAA assessed capital needs and found they were 15 percent lower than the year before.