ITA - Office of Travel and Tourism Industries
Survey of International Air Travelers Program

Program Description

  What is it?

The Survey of International Air Travelers is a primary research program which gathers statistical data about air passenger travelers in U.S. - overseas and Mexican air markets (Canada is excluded).

  Why is it done?

NTTO conducts this program as part of its statistical system* in order to comply with requirements noted in Section 10 of Public Law 104-288, the National Tourism Organization Act of 1996. The Act states that Commerce is to collect and publish comprehensive international travel and tourism statistics and other marketing information. In addition, this program is implemented to enable the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) to comply with Section 8 of the Bretton Woods Agreements Act of 1945 (Public Law 79-171, as amended), and implemented by Executive Order No. 10033, which requires them to provide export/import and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) data for the country. The Survey data also contributes to BEA’s Travel and Tourism Satellite Account (TTSA) program for the U.S. .

More recent legislation, the Travel Promotion Act of 2009, mandates that NTTO continue and expand its research activities including the SIAT.

In addition, the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) has re-approved the Survey program (0625-0227) through 2/28/2015 as a necessary data collection tool.

*(including DHS I-94 and I-92 data)

The program also serves as the cornerstone for NTTO’s efforts to assist U.S. businesses to improve their competitiveness and effectiveness in the international travel market. Many state tourism offices and convention and visitors bureaus are dependent upon the program as the source for comparable state and city visitation and international traveler trend information. Other stakeholders include participating airlines, airports and other government agencies.

  When is it conducted?

The Survey is administered throughout the month, every month of the calendar year. It has been administered every month since1983.

  Who does it?

The Survey (available in 12 languages and consisting of 32 multi-part questions) is self-administered by the passenger who volunteers to take it.

The program targets two separate populations: 1) non-U.S. residents who have traveled to the U.S. and 2) U.S. residents traveling outbound from the U.S., which represent U.S. exports and imports, respectively.

The Surveys are distributed and collected in one of several ways: either by flight attendants on-board the flight or by contractors in the departing gate area.

  Where is the Survey conducted?

The Survey was conducted on selected flights which have departed, or are about to depart, from the major U.S. international gateway airports. The Surveys are administered either on-board flights or in the airport gate area, of the over 70 participating airlines (foreign and U.S.) departing U.S. international gateways.

  How does the process work (Methodology)?

The sample universe consists of all international air travelers to or from the U.S. (except Canadians). However, there are two separate populations being targeted. One population is comprised of U.S. residents departing the U.S. on the originating leg of their flight. The other population is non-resident visitors (specific visa types) who are on their return leg home, who are aboard the same outbound flight departing the U.S.  

Sample selection is made, on a random basis, of scheduled flights (clusters) from among all participating airlines that depart the U.S. to overseas or Mexican destinations. A computer program selects a random sample of flights to be surveyed from an electronic database of scheduled airline flights. Major charter carriers are also included in the program. The number of flights sampled proportionately reflects the total number of flights offered by carrier and the dispersion of flights by destination.

Survey data is gathered from self-administered questionnaires. Due to the ‘skip-pattern’ design of the questions, the same questionnaire is used for both resident and non-resident visitors. The questionnaires are distributed and collected in either of two ways depending on the preference of the participating carrier: 1) on-board the flight (hence ‘in-flight’) by the airline flight crew personnel or a 2) boarding-area collection in the airport gate area.

  • In-Flight: NTTO’s contractor relationship with the carrier’s airport management staff enables the government to distribute the survey kits (nylon bag containing up to 125 questionnaires, pencils and a recap report) on a monthly basis to the flight crews via the airline service managers. An announcement is made to the passengers that the flight crew will be handing out questionnaires to volunteers. The crews collect the surveys before landing, note the number of surveys distributed for the flight. The survey kit is moved to the ship’s cargo hold for the return flight to a U.S. gateway. Then the airline service manager forwards the survey kits back to the contractor.
  • Boarding Area: At certain airports NTTO’s contractor hires a subcontractor to distribute and collect surveys at the international departure gates for the selected flight. The subcontractor notes the number of surveys completed on a recap sheet and returns the kit to the contractor. New initiatives at several airports have the local tourism organizations working with the airport authorities to distribute/collect the surveys to supplement data collection shortfalls from the in-flight method for certain carriers.

E-Survey Pilot Tests:  NTTO and its contractor (CIC Research, Inc.) have tested several electronic approaches to the Survey with the intent of replacing the paper-based system when appropriate. In 2015, 2014 and 2012 the tests were done pre-flight departure; in 2008 the test was conducted during the booking process.

  • 2015 The E-SIAT tablet test, administered at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), yielded approximately eight (8) completed responses per flight compared to the current, paper-based method, which produced 14 surveys per flight. The results do not warrant the immediate adoption of the tablet methodology as a replacement for the current approach. However, the results were positive enough to warrant additional testing of this method. The major caveats are that the tablet approach requires more field service interaction than the legacy (paper) method and appears to increase passenger response time. [Results]
  • 2014 NTTO partnered with JetBlue Airlines and several other international carriers on 20 flights departing from New York’s JFK Airport in late October. An invitation card, containing a URL, was handed out to passengers in the boarding area. Respondents were asked to access the URL (directing them to the e-version of the questionnaire in English, French, Spanish or German) either during pre-departure in the gate area, or while on-board the flight, or once having arrived at their destination. The results do not indicate that this is a feasible approach to increase collections at a lower unit cost. [Results] NTTO will continue to monitor and test new options.
  • 2012: NTTO/CIC partnered with Lufthansa Airlines on 13 of their flights departing from Dulles (IAD), Orlando (MCO) and San Francisco (SFO) during early August. An invitation card, containing a URL, was handed out to passengers in the boarding area and the lounge (IAD). Respondents were asked to access the URL (directing them to the e-version of the questionnaire in English or German) either during pre-departure, or while on-board the flight, or once having arrived at their destination. The results, while modest, do indicate this path is feasible and warrants further study. [Results]
  • 2008: Several airlines and industry booking engines participated. The e-Survey was divided into pre-trip and post-trip sections. After the booking of an international flight itinerary the booking engine or offered a ‘pop-up’ to the booker inquiring if he/she would like to complete the pre-trip portion. Upon completion of the pre-trip the booker was invited to participate in the post-trip section of the questionnaire after the trip was complete. The results were less than stellar. See.
Data Entry/Editing/Weighting
The contractor processes the return of the survey kits. This includes verifying the receipt of survey kits, coding, data entry and editing of the completed questionnaires. Foreign language responses are translated. A quality control process ensures data integrity. The Survey data is “weighted” to census data. For example, non-resident inbound survey responses are weighted to the “100%” population of DHS I-94 arrival records to adjust for over and under sampling. Resident outbound data is weighted based on DHS I-92 U.S. departure data.
  What information is presented?

The survey instrument (questionnaire) used for this program was designed by the U.S. government, the airlines and travel industry. The questionnaire was designed in 1982, and modified in 1985, 1990, 1993, 1996 and 2012. The information collected includes the following [link to questionnaire]:

Destination/Gateway Information: destinations visited including: True origin-destination, census regions, states and major cities/attractions, countries, main destination visited port-of-entry, use of connecting flights including airport connections used, leisure/recreational activities, nights away from home/in U.S., number of states, destinations or countries visited, types of transportation used while on the trip, accommodations used and rental car.

Trip Planning Information: Purpose of trip (main and other purposes), type of airline ticket (First Class, Business Class, Coach, frequent flyer tickets/upgrade, discount/group fare, non-revenue), traveler seating area, advanced trip decision/airline reservation timing, method of booking trip/lodging, information sources used, prepaid package/inclusive tour usage, and number of days prior departure the package was purchased.

Ratings Information: Factors involved in choosing the airline for this trip, general impression of the airline (provided to airlines only), ratings of 18 elements of the airplane for this flight (provided to airlines only), recommendation rating for this airline for next trip (provided to airlines only), Customs & Border Protection service ratings, ratings of 10 airport attributes, time required to clear Customs, baggage delivery time rating.

Demographic Information: residence and citizenship of traveler, U.S. zip codes, country of birth, gender, age, occupation, income, type and size of travel party, first international trip to/from U.S., number of foreign trips in past five years; & past twelve months, trip expenditures (total and itemized) , use of credit card, travelers checks, debit card use for payment of expenses.

Product Differentiation: Survey data provides information on the entire U.S. overseas and Mexican-air marketplaces or any sub-region and/or true origin-destination itineraries, unlike individual airline, alliance-only surveys or data-sets that are predominantly U.S. carrier focused. Survey data reveals the nature of the customer, his/her choice patterns and demographics and is not just an onboard service evaluation.

  How this information is Published or Provided

Data are available on a quarterly and annual basis for either non-resident inbound or resident outbound. It can be delivered in a standard national report format or as a custom report, either in print or excel. Data files are also available in SPSS.

Twelve country reports are published for inbound data. Mexican data are reported in a separate country reports (resident or non-resident)

State and city reports (including the top 12 states and top 12 cities) are available.

For more Survey information see the publications section.