WASHINGTON - Frustrated American travelers avoided making 41 million trips on commercial planes over the past year because of the hassle of air travel, a survey released yesterday by the travel industry found.

These missed trips cost the U.S. economy more than $26 billion and most travelers believe the problems are getting worse, according to the poll sponsored by the Travel Industry Association, which represents all segments of the $740 billion-a-year industry.

"The air-travel crisis has hit a tipping point - more than 100,000 travelers each day are voting with their wallets by choosing to avoid trips," said Roger Dow, president and CEO of TIA.

"Hub airports are likely to feel the greatest effect - places like Atlanta," said Geoff Freeman, a senior vice president of TIA.

More than half the avoided trips would have been for leisure - so Florida destinations such as West Palm Beach are losing visitors, said Freeman. Travelers expect hassles in Chicago O'Hare and decide not to fly to South Florida, he explained. "It's deterring them from going to those destinations."

The survey focuses on frustration with the air-travel system and not the recent hikes in fares due to rising fuel prices, so the situation may be worse than these results show, Dow said on a conference call with reporters. The frustrations frequently mentioned included long lines for check-in and security screening, flight delays and cancellations, and problems with checked and take-on baggage.

"Travelers believe the air-travel process is bad and getting worse," said Dow. Indeed, the survey showed that 62 percent of travelers believe that the air-travel system is deteriorating.

The survey showed that the more people fly, the less they like it. While 33 percent of all air travelers are dissatisfied with the system, for instance, 48 percent of frequent fliers - those who took five or more round-trip flights in the past year - are dissatisfied. While 39 percent of all air travelers felt that their time was not respected in the process, 51 percent of the frequent fliers felt that their time was disrespected.

"With rising fuel prices already weighing heavily on American pocketbooks, we need to find ways to encourage Americans to continue their business and leisure travel," said Dow. "Unfortunately, just the opposite appears to be happening." *