America's Congressional watchdog the General Accounting Office has warned the country - and the Federal Aviation Administration in particular - not to abandon plans for airport and infrastructure development just because the recession has been worsened by 11 September. When demand returns, the GAO says, the current plan"will fall far short of meeting the system's growing needs".

What has prompted the GAO's fears is that the traffic reductions may have downgraded airport congestion among government priorities. "Delays remain a pervasive problem," says the GAO, classifying airport capacity as "a major national issue".

The European Union should listen to what the GAO says because it is just as true on the eastern side of the Atlantic. In fact in both Europe and the USA it is true not only for airports, but for air traffic control capacity. There is no doubt that 11 September pushed the US economic downturn into a full-blown recession, but the cyclical downturn was well established before terrorists struck the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

Now, except for its continued presence in the depressed transatlantic traffic and domestic US airline figures, the 11 September effect is no longer clear in most of the world. To put it another way, in most parts of the global marketplace - even in aviation - it is getting more difficult each month to determine how much of the downturn al-Qaeda could claim to have caused and how much would have happened anyway. Global economic cycles are inevitable, and for several years financial pages all over the world had been warning that it was only a matter of time before the next recession arrived.

Cycles being cycles, it is only a matter of time before the upswing starts again. The manufacturers and the airlines will unquestionably rise to the challenge, but the infrastructure, under severe strain in Europe and the USA before the downturn, will almost certainly fail to do so. The only question is, how serious will the infrastructure shortfall be?

Eurocontrol figures make it clear that, a year ago, the still-fragmented European air traffic services (ATS) network was under-capacity. Now, with the year-on-year traffic downturn plus the fact that traffic is at low-season levels anyway, Europe's ATS providers are coping. Eurocontrol is well aware that things are not fine and the system cannot rest on its laurels, but the network of state owned airtraffic control systems remains subject, as do airports in the USA, to political funding and therefore political priorities. Governments both sides of the Atlantic have an absolutely unbroken history of ignoring ATS and airport needs until they are in crisis. This industry downturn, then, bodes ill for infrastructure needs. Instead of being used as a useful catch-up period, it is in danger of causing aviation infrastructure improvement to fall off government "to do" lists.

If any politicians doubt that aviation will recover and naturally resume its steady growth rate, let them consider this: do they really believe that individual citizens, when the recession is over, will wish to reject their former lifestyle, which included increasingly frequent air travel? Do they really believe that, when business becomes vigorous again, executives and sales teams will not wish to travel to do the deals that, otherwise, their competitors would snatch from them? Do they doubt, as they fail to meet airport and ATS capacity shortages, that their nation's capacity to compete seriously on the global business stage will be harmed? Do they really believe that foreign investment, overseas companies and tourists will flood into their country when travel to and from it is becoming badly constrained?

Not only do people and businesses increasingly want to travel by air, but in doing so they learn about other countries, their people and their ways of living, thinking and doing business. In his statements summarising the International Civil Aviation Organisation's achievements during 2001, its president, Assad Kotaite, quoted from the preamble to the ICAO's 1945 Convention on International Civil Aviation, which included the lines: "The future development of international civil aviation can greatly help to create and preserve friendship and understanding among the nations and peoples of the worldÉto promote that co-operationÉupon which the peace of the world depends." The passage of 57 years has not altered that truth, so when politicians are tempted to shelve provision for the aviation sector's needs, they harm more than their nation's economy.

Source: Flight International