Spring air travel expected to be busiest since 2007

About 135 million passengers are expected to fly in March and April

With spring air travel expected to rise to the highest level since 2007, tourism leaders are calling on airlines to invest more of their profits on airport upgrades and to open the door to greater competition.

About 134.8 million passengers are expected to fly in March and April this year, a 2% increase over last year, according to a report released Wednesday by Airlines for America, a trade group for the nation's carriers. In 2007, 135.1 million passengers flew during that period.

The trade group attributes the increase in spring travel to "rising U.S. employment and personal incomes, an improving economy, the highest consumer sentiment in a decade and the continued affordability of air travel," said John Heimlich, chief economist for the group.

But the airline industry came under fire Wednesday by tourism leaders who say carriers are not doing enough to make air travel enjoyable.

"Every piece of evidence we have shows that our infrastructure is already straining under the current load, and that passengers are frustrated beyond words by overcrowded flights and delays in the terminal and on the tarmac," said Roger Dow, president and chief executive of the U.S. Travel Assn., the trade group for the nation's tourism industry.

The strain between the two groups is focused partly on a passenger facility charge on airfares that the Obama administration wants to increase from $4.50 per flight segment to $8. The travel association supports the higher fee to pay for airport improvements. The airlines say the higher fee will push down demand.

Another topic of dispute has been a call by three of the nation's largest airlines to restrict access to the U.S. by international carriers from the Persian Gulf. United, Delta and American have argued that Qatar, Etihad and Emirates airlines compete unfairly because they receive government subsidies. Several U.S. airlines are also urging the U.S. government to restrict new flights to the U.S. from budget carrier Norwegian Air Shuttle.

"We're alarmed that the big three seem determined to stamp out competition and cling to the status quo, which fundamentally harms the consumer, particularly as demand grows," Dow said.

Annual profit for the top 10 U.S. airlines rose to a combined $7.3 billion in 2014, representing a profit margin of 4.6% compared with a 3.2% profit margin in 2011 and 3.7% in 2012, according to federal statistics.

To read more about travel, tourism and the airline industry, follow me on Twitter at @hugomartin.

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