6.5 – Airport Terminals

Authors: Dr. John Bowen and Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue

An airport is a facility where aircraft can take off and land. They usually consist of hard-surfaced landing strips, a control tower, hangars, and accommodations for passengers and cargo.

1. Airports: Global Reach, Local Impacts

The rapid expansion of air passengers and air freight flows fostered by globalization has increased the importance and pressure on the global system of airports. That system played a key role in the early spread of COVID-19, and the emptying out of airports in early 2020 was an early signal of the profound impacts of the pandemic on the air transport industry. On the eve of the pandemic, airports were more prominent than ever before in the volumes of traffic they handled, their spatial extent, the distances that separated them from the cities they serve, their costs and economic impacts, their social importance, their environmental externalities, and the political controversies they engendered. Ironically, the global importance of airports has exacerbated the local conflicts they provoke in terms of required land, surrounding commercial and manufacturing developments, ground traffic, and aircraft noise. There is a large variation in the amount of passenger and freight traffic handled by airports, underlining a hierarchy that can be explained by four major factors:

  • Demand pattern. The traffic an airport handles is directly influenced by the population, income, commercial intensity, and the level of touristic activity of the city it serves. The population also influences freight traffic as it consumes goods carried by air cargo. The presence of light manufacturing activities is also a factor associated with the demand for air cargo capabilities. Combining these factors is associated with the demand (generation and attraction) of a substantial amount of air traffic.
  • Network connectivity. The decision made by airlines to select hubs within their network substantially impacts the traffic handled by airports. A connecting flight involves a double count (landing and taking off), boosting airport traffic figures.
  • Competing airports. If a metropolitan area is serviced by more than one airport, traffic gets diluted since users have more choices, and connectivity is more challenging to establish. Therefore, proximity to other airports can impose limitations on traffic growth.
  • Physical capacity. Airports have a physical capacity related to the number and length of their runways and terminals. An airport unable to significantly expand its footprint (additional runways and terminals) will not be able to grow beyond a certain threshold, requiring the construction of a new airport at another location.

A fundamental feature of airports is the degree to which they are embedded at several scales:

  • Global. Airports are key articulation points in the circulatory system of the global economy. They mediate the flows of passengers and freight. The importance of an airport in this regard is a function of its centrality and its intermediacy. The former refers to a node’s role as an origin and destination gateway to a surrounding region, and the latter refers to the degree to which a node serves as an interchange between different regions. The most important passenger and freight airports enjoy centrality within one of the world’s foremost city regions, intermediacy among key markets, or both. Global outsourcing and offshoring have increased the importance of intermediacy on a global scale. For example, one factor propelling the growth of Dubai as an air transport hub is the fact with ultra-long-range aircraft like the B787 and the A350, almost any two locations on Earth can be linked via a stop at Dubai International Airport.
  • Regional / National. While globe-straddling flights have garnered a lot of attention (e.g., Qantas Airways’ launch of the first nonstop flight between Australia and London in 2018), most flights do not cross international boundaries, and an even higher proportion (about 80 percent) stay within the same region. At this scale, the network of airports helps tie together nations and regions. For instance, the dense intra-regional network of flights through the nearly 300 airports with commercial services in Southeast Asia lace together the economies of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
  • Local. Airports, especially large ones, are defining features of the communities in which they are set. A large airport generates thousands of jobs directly and more via forward and backward linkages. For Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, it was estimated that 65,000 people were employed at the airport in 2013. For every person employed directly, about one and a half more were employed in the Greater Amsterdam Area by firms connected to the airport. These connections took the form of forward linkages (i.e. businesses for which the airport is a supplier, such as local tourist attractions and logistics facilities) and backward linkages (i.e. businesses for which the airport is a customer, such as fuel suppliers and construction firms). Airports are not just features of a community’s economic geography, however. An airport the size of Schiphol is a critically important source of noise pollution and other local environmental effects, a large consumer of land, and a signature piece of the built environment. Indeed, the newest airport terminals feature striking roofs and are impressive architectural achievements.

The global, regional, and local character of airports cannot be separated. For instance, large corporate headquarters have a pronounced tendency to cluster in cities with good international air accessibility. For instance, there is a strong correlation between the number of headquarters and the number of airline passengers in US metropolitan areas. The success of cities such as Dallas (including airport-adjacent suburbs like Irving) in attracting headquarters from other, smaller cities illustrates this idea. There is evidence that air accessibility is also a catalyst for jobs in logistics, knowledge-intensive information economy industries, and high-order producer services (e.g., top advertising agencies). The relationship between jobs and air accessibility works in both directions, but it appears that the second direction (i.e. accessibility catalyzing jobs) is stronger.

Similarly, the negative externalities associated with aviation, especially noise and air pollution, are locally concentrated around airports but stem from flights whose purpose is to transcend the local scale. A 2015 study estimated that aviation emissions globally cause 16,000 premature deaths (mainly due to particulate matter emissions). Almost a third of those deaths are concentrated within 20 kilometers of a commercial airport. The brunt of noise falls even more heavily on the local vicinity of airports. At London’s Heathrow Airport, for instance, tests found that the noise level beneath the flight path of a departing Airbus A350-1000 (a 330-seat airplane) dropped below 85 decibels (about the same volume as a garbage disposal truck) approximately 6 kilometers from the beginning of the takeoff roll. The Airbus A350 was designed for intercontinental flights (e.g., it was used in sectors such as Hong Kong-Madrid and Houston-Doha in mid-2019), but its noise footprint is small and focused on airports and their environs.

The articulation of airports across several scales exacerbates the potential for significant conflict between those who benefit most from aviation and those who bear the costs. One of the most frequent causes of conflict is the siting of airports.

2. Airport Sites

Airports require very large sites; they need space for the two main components – runways and terminal buildings – as well as for maintenance hangars, parking, and other facilities. The runway remains one of the most vital elements of air transportation as it dictates the system’s capacity. While there are considerable variations in the scale of different airports, minimum sizes above 500 hectares represent enormous commitments of urban land. Thus, airports are sited at the periphery of urban areas because such sites offer a balance between available land costs and accessibility to the urban core. Meanwhile, many airports built in the 1940s and 1950s at the periphery of cities eventually found themselves surrounded by subsequent metropolitan developments.

Significantly, there have been few new large-scale airport developments in North America since the 1980s. The examples of Denver (whose new airport opened in 1995 far from the city center) and Montreal (whose distant second airport at Mirabel closed to commercial flights in 2004, just thirty years after it opened) illustrate how difficult and contentious such developments have become. The result has been that most airports must adjust to their existing sites by re-configuring runways and renovating existing terminal facilities.

Suburbanization, in general, is the main factor why building major airports with each passing decade has become more challenging, leading to paradoxes. On the one hand, suburbanization implies that a greater share of the metropolitan population lives in peripheral sites, potentially with better accessibility to airports. On the other hand, the land-use footprint of suburban sprawl leaves fewer options available for airport development.

Airport site location involves a wide variety of considerations:

  • Air transportation forecast demand. Forecasted demand strongly affects the number and length of runways, the size of airport terminals, and the physical size of the airport itself. Larger aircraft generally require longer runways. For example, about 3,300 meters (10,000 feet) are required for the largest commercial planes to take off at sea level with a maximum payload and full fuel tanks.
  • Runway configuration. About 30 to 60 movements (landings and takeoffs) per hour are possible on a standard commercial runway, depending on the type of plane and weather conditions. However, where runways intersect, capacity is significantly reduced. Thus, the trend for the largest airports is to have parallel runways permitting simultaneous takeoffs and landings. Parallel runway configurations generally demand more space than crossing runways. Denver International Airport, for instance, has four north-south runways and two east-west runways, none of which intersect, and each has a footprint of 3,000 hectares. On the opposite end of the spectrum, runways can be simple strips, allowing only small or medium-sized propeller places to land.
  • Altitude. At higher altitudes, a longer runway is required to achieve the same lift because the air density is lower. Sixty percent of all commercial airports, however, are at an altitude of fewer than 500 feet (150 meters).
  • Meteorological conditions. Local variations in prevailing winds and visibility must be considered. Runways are configured to maximize the probability that aircraft take off, land into the wind, and minimize exposure to crosswinds. For instance, at Heathrow Airport, winds are most likely to come out of the east, so its runways have an east-west configuration. Airport sites also vary in their vulnerability to fog and cloud cover. Oakland’s less fogbound airport has gained some business, for instance, especially from low-cost carriers, at the expense of San Francisco International.
  • Topography. The land upon which runways are built must be flat, with no more than a 1 percent slope. Hilly land can be flattened and swampy landfilled, but at a cost.
  • Environmental considerations. Airports have significant effects on local waterways, wildlife, and air quality. In 2018, for instance, France formally shelved plans to build a new airport for the southwestern city of Nantes after years of protests by environmentalists concerned about the loss of wetlands at the site and the airport’s contribution to global climate change.
  • Adjacent land uses. Concerns about noise and other airport impacts have encouraged setting aside buffer areas much larger than runways, and the supporting terminals, taxiways, and other infrastructure required. For instance, the Denver International Airport, completed in 1995, occupies a parcel of land twice the size of Manhattan. In other cases, such as Dun Huang in China, specific geographical constraints had to be respected, namely that the airport could not consume scarce agricultural land.
  • Local accessibility. At the same time, however, an airport must be accessible to the communities it serves, making its location relative to highways and passenger rail lines important. Of the world’s twenty busiest airports, only two (Istanbul New Airport and Los Angeles International) do not have direct rail access from an airport terminal, and by 2023, even those airports will be linked. Rail access augments the function of an airport as a pole in its regional economy.
  • Obstructions. Beyond the airport perimeter, the proximity of mountains, hills, and heavily built-up areas (as in the case of Hong Kong’s old airport at Kai Tak) complicates airport operations. If approach corridors pass over residential zones, pressures can emerge to restrict operating hours.
  • Other airports. Nearby airports, especially in the same metropolitan area, may limit the available airspace and constrain new airport operations. This is particularly the case in New York, where the controlled airspace of three major airports – John F. Kennedy International, Newark Liberty International, and LaGuardia – and several smaller ones overlap. Many cities around the world are serviced by more than one airport, usually within a range of 100 to 150 km. Cities such as London, Moscow, San Francisco, Paris, New York, Seoul, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Washington have more than one airport within commuting range.

The increasing physical size of airports and the difficulty of fitting in with neighboring land uses have encouraged the development of airports at increasingly remote locations. Indeed, the more recently an airport was constructed, the more likely it is to be located far from the center of the metropolitan area it services. This often requires providing transit services such as light rail to connect the airport to central areas. In the most extreme cases, land has been reclaimed from the sea to make space for airports. Chek Lap Kok (Hong Kong) and Changi (Singapore) were built on reclaimed land.

Asia is home to several examples of “airport terraforming”. Kansai International Airport, for instance, is located entirely on an artificial island in Japan’s Inland Sea. The island, which was a prime contributor to the stratospheric cost of Kansai, is an extraordinary example of the lengths to which airport builders have had to go to meet the spatial requirements of key hub airports. Indeed, four of the most expensive new airports in the world, Hong Kong International, Kansai International (Osaka), Chubu Centrair International (Nagoya), and Incheon International (Seoul), share three characteristics: their location in fast-growing Asia, proximity to densely populated metropolitan areas, and construction atop land reclaimed from the sea.

The Asian airport building boom has a long way to go as air transport demand in the region continues to increase. In 2021, China had 248 airports with scheduled passenger air services, India had 123, and the United States had 650. The state of Odisha in eastern India, with a population of 46 million people, had just four commercial airports in 2021. On the opposite side of the country, Mumbai was the largest city in the world, served by just one runway (its airport has two intersecting runways, but only one can be used at a time). A planned second airport for the mega-city has been repeatedly delayed by opposition from villagers at the proposed site, environmental concerns, and difficulty attracting qualified bidders.

Similar obstacles have confronted new airport development in more advanced economies. In the United States, Denver International (1995) and Austin-Bergstrom International (a repurposed military airbase, 1999) are the only large airports to have opened in the past quarter century. In Europe, there are just two such airports: Athens International (2001) and the Istanbul New Airport (2019). Airports are political lightning rods, and examples from around the world (including a new airport for Mexico City that was canceled in 2018) illustrate how difficult and contentious such projects can be, especially in democracies. The result has been that most airports must adjust to their existing sites by re-configuring runways and building new terminals, as in Chicago O’Hare International, New York LaGuardia, and London Heathrow. These projects have hardly been free of controversy, however, and are themselves very expensive; Heathrow’s Terminal 5, which opened in 2008, and associated infrastructure cost more than $8 billion. Terminal 5 was also costly in terms of time, with twenty years elapsing between the first planning studies and airport opening. The long development time for new airports or airport expansion projects and the tendency for cost and schedule overruns have made it difficult for the world’s air transport system to keep up with demand.

3. Keeping Pace: Airports and Delay

Like international trade, the growth pattern in air transportation is cyclical and subject to phases of growth and decline. About 8,000 passengers per minute took off from a runway somewhere in the world in 2018, underlining the intense use of the world’s airports. In 2008, the comparable figure was fewer than 5,000. Apart from China, the world’s air transport capacity has expanded relatively little during the same decade. The result has been worsening congestion and delay in some of the most densely trafficked sectors.

There are two main types of delays experienced by air transport. There are runway delays related to the capacity of flights to take off and land under various weather conditions. The usage of airports is generally characterized by two to four pulses of activity per day. During peak hours, airport capacity is strained and may require some inbound flights into a waiting pattern for an available landing slot. There are also land delays where planes are impaired by taxiing time and the unavailability of gates. Nevertheless, the expansion of air traffic ensures that the building of new runways, new terminals, and new airports will continue. There are a variety of means other than new runways and terminals to meet the needs of the future, including better use of information technology, such as air traffic control systems.

The purpose of an airport terminal is to maximize the efficiency of the vertical (inbound and outbound), and lateral (transits) flows of passengers. Embarking and disembarking planes can be frequent sources of delays. For instance, due to the propensity of passengers to bring carry-on luggage (in part because of check-in luggage fees), flight boarding times have significantly increased. While in the 1970s, it could take about 15 minutes to board a domestic flight of 140 passengers, this figure increased to 30 to 40 minutes in the 2000s. Airlines are trying to find more effective boarding sequences, but a jetbridge (or sky bridge) and a single boarding door constrain further improvements. Some low-cost airlines are opting out of jetbridges and boarding using the front and the back doors of the plane, decreasing the plane turnaround time.

Failing to keep pace with demand will mean worsening congestion and the risk of delay in many parts of the global airline industry, inciting many airlines to adapt their schedule. Expansion projects will help, but the lack of additional capacity in many parts of the system means many chokepoints from which delays can propagate. This has become a particular vulnerability within air transportation, notably in systems actively developed around the hub-and-spoke structure. Any disruption in a hub can have far-reaching consequences on the whole network.

In the United States, just over 20 percent of flights were delayed by more than 15 minutes in 2018. Interestingly, this result was better than in 2008, when 24 percent of flights were delayed, but improvements are somewhat misleading. Under pressure to improve on-time performance, airlines have padded their scheduled flight times. For instance, in the late-1990s, a flight from Boston’s Logan International Airport to New York LaGuardia was scheduled for 60 to 70 minutes from gate to gate; by 2019, airlines operating the route scheduled their flights for a duration of 75 to 80 minutes. Partly due to schedule padding like this, 2012 was the first year in which more flights in the US arrived at least 15 minutes early than at least 15 minutes late. The US distinguishes five causes of airport delays. In order of importance in 2018, these were:

  1. Late arriving aircraft delay (6.8% of all flights were delayed for this reason).
  2. National aviation system delays (6.1%) include, for instance, heavy traffic volumes and air traffic control.
  3. Air carrier delay (5.2%) comprising problems under the airline’s control, including maintenance and crew issues.
  4. Extreme weather delay (0.7%).
  5. Security delay (0.03%).

The significance of late-arriving aircraft delay is a testament to the degree to which problems at highly congested hub airports quickly propagate through the hub-and-spoke structures in which they are at the center. If a congested hub is forced to shut down for a short period, especially during one of the connection banks, when activity peaks, delays cascade through the system. Once the airport reopens, the priority is to land the inbound flights that were waiting in standby patterns (and in danger of exhausting their fuel), which delays additional outbound flights. The outbound queue can become so substantial that gate access for inbound flights is hindered, which again exacerbates delays since delayed inbound flights will become delayed (or canceled) outbound flights. Larger or longer weather disruptions, such as a blizzard affecting multiple key hubs, worsen the predicament.

Spatial variations in weather help to account for the uneven distribution of aviation delays. In 2018, among the thirty busiest airports in the US, the worst on-time performance was recorded by Newark Liberty International (29.8 percent of flights arrived late), San Francisco International (24.8 percent), and New York LaGuardia (23.4 percent) – busy airports in congested airspace with frequent poor weather. Conversely, Salt Lake City (15.8 percent delayed), one of the locations with the most sunny days in the country, had the best performance among busy airports.

Congestion and delays are the most common when an airport runs out of capacity since the advantage of an airport site can be a double-edged sword, as it attracts additional passengers and air services. For instance, the airport of Lisbon, Portugal, is running out of capacity in part because of its proximity to the CBD and being the closest European airport to Central and South America. Unsurprisingly, the problem of airport delays is worse in fast-growing emerging markets. In 2017, the percentage of delayed flights in Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International was 48.1 percent; the soaring success of low-cost carriers (LCCs) in Indonesia has strained infrastructure across the archipelago nation. LCCs are also a key factor in the poor on-time performance of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International (39.6 percent of flights arrived late). However, the runway limitations (discussed above) in India’s business capital were also a key factor.

The problem of aviation delay is not due solely to what happens in airports. The airspace in between is also congested. In the United States, controllers still use slips of paper to exchange information about aircraft being tracked; so digitization could speed things up. In Europe, meanwhile, the fragmentation of the continent into dozens of national airspace systems is a different kind of obstacle that, if overcome, could smooth the movement of air traffic. Technology could help here, too. Yet even as technological change offers some potential solutions, it may deliver new challenges. Numerous startups, some backed by Silicon Valley tech giants, are exploring different ways of bringing urban air mobility – flying cars – to fruition. If such vehicles do take to the skies, they could transform urban landscapes and ways of life, but they would further complicate the challenge of balancing aviation supply and demand on the ground and in the air.

4. Airports and Regional Development

Airports are substantial engines of economic activity. The flows of passengers and cargo generate significant wealth, but airports also have attracted economic activities that need the accessibility – increasingly at the global scale – that airports make possible. A growing number of airport regions are planned specifically to encourage these connections, creating a form of metropolitan development called “aerotropolis“. Ground transport networks, including highways and transit corridors, weave these elements into a vibrant cluster with the airport at its heart.

Four major types of airport-related economic effects can be identified:

  • Direct effects. Include the activities undertaken at the airport itself: services to passengers (check-in, security, boarding), cargo (loading and unloading), and aircraft (refueling, cleaning). This category also includes concessionaires working in airports and selling travelers everything from coffee to Rolex watches.
  • Indirect effects. Comprise the economic activities powered by backward linkages from the airport, such as jet fuel suppliers, electricity producers, and other utilities, and fresh food sold in on-site airport restaurants. An airport needs many different inputs, and the flow of those inputs into the airport generates a counter-flow of money into the economy of the local area and beyond.
  • Induced effects. Comprise the economic activities powered by forward linkages, especially the spending by people who work at the airport and the passengers passing through it. The thousands of people who work at a large hub spend their income on everything from prescriptions at nearby drug stores to new homes. The constellation of restaurants and hotels surrounding many airports also falls in this category.
  • Catalytic effects. Include the activities an airport attracts through lower transportation costs and network accessibility. For instance, the location of Nike’s largest distribution center adjacent to Memphis International Airport (FedEx’s global hub) and Amazon’s decision to place its second headquarters just outside Washington Reagan National Airport and about 45 kilometers from Washington Dulles International Airport are both testaments to the catalytic power of airports. The balance of these effects depends on the size of an airport.

Economic activities classified under direct effects generate airport revenues. Airlines pay landing fees, gate charges, parking charges, baggage handling charges, and other fees generally related to the size of the aircraft. For instance, an airline flying a Boeing B777 into Narita Airport near Tokyo would pay about $5,500 in landing fees in 2023; landing an Airbus A320 at the same airport costs about $850. Airports also generate revenue from passenger charges, parking, and rental income from concessionaires. These and other non-aeronautical revenues represent about 40 percent of airport revenues globally and are more important at larger hubs; they represented 53 percent of revenue at Dubai International in 2014.

Non-aeronautical revenue has grown rapidly over the past few decades as major airports have become retail destinations instead of just places to speed through en route to somewhere else. Still, this key revenue stream is under threat from numerous directions: Uber, Lyft, and other car-sharing services are cutting into parking revenue, and slow security screening has cut into the time available for people to shop in airports. Three other factors complicate retail services within an airport terminal. First, space is usually at a premium, so stores and restaurants cannot maintain a large inventory, limiting options and the ability to accommodate unforeseen demand. Second, all inventory must go through security measures, usually off-hours, so inventory cannot be replenished in real-time. Third, customers need to be served quickly due to time constraints, which usually involve more staff to process transactions.

Much as the airline industry has been transformed by liberalization in recent decades, the airport business has also been buffeted by its dramatic changes, some of which stem from the airlines. A few decades ago, most major airports and airlines were state-owned, run as public utilities, and somewhat insulated from competition. That is no longer the case in either industry. Although the airport business has changed to a lesser degree, as many are still managed by airport authorities, there are important instances of privatization and globalization. For instance, London’s Heathrow Airport is owned by a holding company whose leading investors include a Spanish construction company, Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, a Quebec pension fund, and other financial firms from the United States, China, and the United Kingdom.

More importantly, airports compete more fiercely for business than in the past. In this regard, the rise of low-cost carriers (LCCs) is important because one dimension of some LCCs’ business models is service via lower-cost secondary airports. In Belgium, Ryanair and other LCCs have made Charleroi South Brussels Airport an alternative gateway to the region surrounding the EU capital. By 2022, Ryanair served 83 regular destinations from Charleroi, with the airport handling about 8.2 million passengers (on Ryanair and other LCCs), while Brussels National handled 18.9 million passengers. The carrier was initially attracted to the airport by a variety of subsidies and other financial incentives from the local and regional governments. While the European Commission later ruled that some of those arrangements violated European competition policy, the stakes are so high in attracting and retaining air services that governments will continue aggressively promoting their airports.

The air cargo business is an important component of many airports. The intermodal transfer between air and land transport systems requires parking areas for planes, warehousing, consolidation and deconsolidation space, handling equipment, and cargo-related services. Some airports have specialized in handling air cargo. The importance of Memphis and Louisville, for instance, in cargo flows, is attributable to the hubs operated by FedEx and UPS, respectively. The benefits to the two cities have been enormous, so the incentives for those cities to keep their hubs and for other cities to try to attract one. Memphis, for example, has become “America’s Distribution Center” as manufacturers and retailers have set up sophisticated warehousing operations there to take advantage of the hub. In Europe, Liege, Belgium, and Leipzig, Germany, have also become freight hubs, partly because they have looser nighttime operations restrictions than larger airports (e.g., Frankfurt). In China, there is a stronger overlap between the top passenger and cargo hubs; Hong Kong and Shanghai rank among the busiest airports for cargo worldwide.

Ultimately, an airport, especially a large one, is more than a node in the flow of people and goods. It is a dynamic space via which the economy, landscapes, and identity of a place are shaped and can be reshaped. The globe-straddling networks spun from colossal new airports in the Persian Gulf and East Asia, the prominence of showpiece airports in the portfolios of superstar architects, and the significance of the names given to key hubs all underline the importance of facilities that are much more than just infrastructure. To take one final example, in late 2017, after years of delay, Senegal’s new $600 million Blaise Diagne International Airport opened 40 kilometers east of the capital Dakar. Named for a Senegal-born man who, in 1914, became the first black African elected to the French parliament, the airport is intended to strengthen the position of Senegal as a leader in the region’s air transportation. Dakar already has nonstop flights to New York, Washington, Dubai, and cities across Europe and Africa. Still, the new airport – which relieved a severely congested one hemmed in by urban development – was well-situated to mediate connections between Africa’s growing economies and the rest of the world. And so, the new airport carries Senegal’s ambitions for greater global connectivity, larger tourism flows, a key role in African logistics, and an economy diversified beyond agriculture and the primacy of Dakar. Yet large airports are also focal points for controversies, which in this instance included the displacement of 3,000 families from the site of Blaise Diagne International and doubts about the wisdom of placing an airport so far from the main city it serves.

The distance of airports from the city they serve and the time many users spend accessing them underline a key question concerning the regional development impact of any airport: which stakeholder benefits the most? Even in an era of low-cost carriers, aviation remains expensive, but rising incomes make it increasingly accessible in developing economies. An airport may be a gateway, much as Senegal hopes its new international airport will be a gateway to and from West Africa. However, access to the gate is subject to several restrictions. The ticket cost remains unaffordable to many, while others lack the documentation required to pass security screens or visa restrictions for international travel. A central theme in contemporary geography research on airports concerns the tension between their role as places of possibility, fluidity, and mobility on the one hand and the economic, social, and political disparities in their access on the other.

A more immediate question concerning airports and economic development is how demand will recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The recovery to date has been highly uneven. In 2020, seven of the world’s ten busiest airports ranked by passenger volumes were in China, led by Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport. In 2019, only two of the top ten were Chinese. More generally, large domestic markets have recovered faster than international travel, with adverse implications for airports in small countries depending on tourism. Seychelles’ main airport was closed to tourists for more than a year, and in the first six months after reopening in March 2021, it welcomed an average of just 550 visitor arrivals per day, compared to more than 1000 per day before the pandemic. Many airports have seen several direct connections severed, lowering global connectivity. The long-term durability of switching to working from home and replacing face-to-face meetings with virtual meetings remains uncertain. These circumstances are likely to mute the development impact of airports in many parts of the world for some time. The mid-range forecast of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) calls for global passenger-kilometer revenue to return to 2019 levels by 2024.

Cargo demand has recovered more quickly, however, and booming e-commerce demand may hasten the shift of some airports towards greater dependence on freight flows. For instance, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport was once a vitally important hub for Delta Air Lines; however, long before the pandemic, Delta downsized its operation. In 2021, however, Amazon Air officially opened its largest hub facility in Cincinnati, with plans for up to 200 daily flights. Other airports may similarly find new paths forward amid aviation’s troubled skies.

Related Topics


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