The Geography of Transport Systems
Jean-Paul Rodrigue (2013), New York: Routledge, 416 pages.
ISBN 978-0-415-82254-1
Airport Terminals
Authors: Dr. John Bowen and Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue
1. Airports: Global Reach, Local Impacts
The rapid expansion of air passengers and air freight flows (see Chapter 3, Concept 5) fostered by globalization is supported by the setting of an extensive system of airports. They are bigger in the volumes of traffic they handle, their sizes and the distances that separate them from the cities they serve, their costs and economic impacts, their social importance, their environmental externalities, and the political controversies they engender. The very importance of airports globally has exacerbated the local conflicts they provoke in terms of required land, surrounding commercial and manufacturing developments, the land traffic they generate and the noise of approaching and departing aircrafts. Indeed, a fundamental feature of airports is the degree to which they are embedded at several scales:
  • Regional/National/Global. Airports are the articulation points the circulatory system of the global economy. They mediate currents of people and goods. The importance of an airport in this regard is a function of its centrality and its intermediacy. The former term refers to a node’s role as an origin and destination gateway to a surrounding region, and the latter term refers to the degree to which a node serves as an interchange between different regions. The most important passenger and freight airports enjoy either centrality within one of the world’s foremost city-regions, intermediacy among key markets, or both. Global outsourcing and offshoring has 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 B777 and the A340 any two locations on earth can be linked via a stop in Dubai.
  • 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 thousands more via forward and backward linkages. For Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport it is estimated that 60,000 people were employed at the airport itself and that for every person employed directly, two more were employed in the Greater Amsterdam Area by firms linked to the airport (e.g. tourist attractions). 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 extremely long roofs and are impressive architectural achievements.
The global and local character of airports cannot be looked at separately. For instance, the location of large corporate headquarters has a pronounced tendency to cluster in cities with good international air accessibility. A global city is commonly serviced by several large airports within its metropolitan area. There is a strong correlation, for instance, between the number of headquarters and the number of airline passengers in US metropolitan areas. To some degree, the link between accessibility and headquarters underline a reciprocity between the concentration of headquarters jobs in a city generate the traffic that incites airlines to increase the number of connecting flights and the influence of better air accessibility in attracting headquarters jobs. The relationship works in both directions; but it appears that the second direction (i.e. accessibility drawing jobs) is stronger. The success of cities such as Atlanta and Dallas in attracting headquarters from other, smaller cities substantiates that finding. Cities with high air accessibility thus have a higher propensity at attracting activities related to the information economy.
The articulation of airports at several scales creates the potential for significant conflict. One of the most prevalent concerns airport expansion projects on existing sites. In Chicago, the USD 7 billion O'Hare Modernization Program promises to significantly reduce delay in the US air transport system benefiting travelers from throughout the nation (and even internationally), but the costs will fall heavily on local residents in terms of evictions and the future externalities the additional air traffic would bring (congestion and noise).
2. Airport Sites
Airports require very large sites; they need space for runways, for terminal buildings, maintenance hangars and for parking. The runway remains one of the most vital elements of air transportation as it dictates the capacity of the system. While there are considerable variations in the scale of different airports, minimum sizes in excess of 500 hectares represent enormous commitments of urban land. Thus, airports are sited at the periphery of urban areas because it is only there that sufficient quantities of land are available. Many airports built in the 1940s and 1950s at the periphery of cities eventually found themselves surrounded by subsequent metropolitan developments. New site development, in North America and Europe at least, is becoming very difficult because available sites are frequently so far from the urban core that even if planning permission could be obtained, it would lead to very significant diseconomies because of the distance from business and demographic cores. It is significant that there have been few new large-scale airport developments in North America over the last 30 years, and the examples of Denver (new airport located far from the city center) and Montreal (second airport than was eventually abandoned for passenger services) illustrate how difficult and contentious such developments have become. The result has been that most airports have to adjust to their existing sites, by re-configuring runways and renovating existing terminal facilities.
Suburbanization in general is the main factor why it has become more difficult to place major airports with each passing decade, leading to paradoxes. On one hand, suburbanization implies that a greater share of the metropolitan population lives in peripheral sites, potentially with better accessibility to the airport. On the other, the land use take of suburbanization leaves less options available for airport developments. Local site requirements are extremely important for air terminals as its two major components, the airfields and the terminals. Airport site location involves a wide variety of considerations:
  • Air transportation forecast demand. Forecasted demand strongly affects the number and length of runways and the size of airport terminals, and therefore 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, such as the A380, to takeoff.
  • Runway configuration. About 30 to 60 movements (landings and takeoffs) per hour are possible on a commercial runway depending on the type of plane and weather conditions. Landings take about 60 seconds, from the moment that the plane has touched touch down and cleared the runway while takeoffs take between 40 to 60 seconds. However, where runways intersect, capacity is significantly reduced and this type of configuration is considered obsolete for modern airport operations. 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.
  • Altitude. At higher altitude, a longer runway is required to achieve the same lift because the air density is lower. 60% of all commercial airports are at an altitude of less than 500 feet (150 meters).
  • Meteorological conditions. Local variations in precipitation, prevailing wind, turbulences, visibility, etc. must be taken in to account. Oakland’s less fogbound airport has gained some business, especially from low-cost carriers, at the expense of San Francisco International.
  • Topography. The land upon which runways is built must be flat, with no more than a 1 percent slope. Hilly land can be flattened and swampy land filled, of course, but at a cost.
  • Environmental considerations. Airports have significant effects on local waterways, wildlife, and air quality. An important aspect of London-Heathrow’s new Terminal 5 project is the diversion of two rivers around the site.
  • Adjacent land uses. Concerns about noise and other airport impacts have encouraged the setting aside of buffer areas much larger than runways and the supporting terminals, taxiways, and other infrastructure would require. The new Denver International Airport, for instance, 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 (both intercity and metro) important. The integration of airports with passenger rail (e.g. Charles de Gaulle, Schiphol, Hong Kong, Shanghai, New York) is intended to link the airport terminal with the regional market it serves, thus reinforcing its function as a pole in the regional economy.
  • Obstructions. Beyond the airport perimeter, the proximity of mountains, hills, and/or 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 respective airspace of three major airports, John F. Kennedy, Newark and LaGuardia, are impeding one-another.
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, San Francisco, Paris, New York, Seoul, Tokyo, Shanghai or Washington all 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. 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) are likewise built on land reclaimed from the sea.
Asia is, in fact, home to several of the most extreme examples of airport "terraforming". More distinctive than Kansai’s roof, for instance, is its location on a man-made island in Japan’s Inland Sea. The island, which was a prime contributor to the stratospheric cost of Kansai, is an extreme example of the lengths to which airport-builders have had to go to meet the spatial requirements of key hub airports. Overall, the four most expensive new airports in the world (Chek Lap Kok, Osaka-Kansai, Nagoya-Central Japan, and Seoul-Incheon) share three characteristics: their location in fast-growing Asia, the proximity to densely populated metropolitan areas, and their construction atop land reclaimed from the sea. The Asian airport building boom has a long way yet to run as air transport demand in the region continues to increase. In 2005, China had only 196 airports certified to handled transport aircraft. By comparison, the US had 14,000 such airports and Australia 444. India, too, is likely to require the construction of new airports.
Conversely, few new airports have been built in North America or Europe recently. In the US, Denver International is the only large airport to open in the past quarter century. Airports are political lightning rods, and the examples Denver illustrates how difficult and contentious such projects can be. The result has been that most airports have to adjust to their existing sites, by re-configuring runways and building new terminal, as for example in O’Hare and Heathrow. These projects have hardly been free of controversy, however, and are themselves very expensive.
3. Keeping Pace: Airports and Delay
About 6,000 passengers per minute are taking off from a runway across the world, underlining the intense of these terminal facilities. There are two main types of delays experienced by air transport. There are runway delays related to the capacity to have flights take off and land under various weather conditions. During peak hours this 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. It seems inevitable that for many airports, physical expansion will need to take place. China probably represents the most acute situation. With a limited number of airports and traffic growing rapidly, terminals are hard pressed to handle additional demand.
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 (e.g. LaGuardia where almost every available takeoff and landing slot is scheduled for use) mean that there are many chokepoints from which delays can propagate. This has become a particular vulnerability within air transportation, notably in systems strongly developed around the hub-and-spoke structure. Delays at highly congested hub airports quickly propagate within the whole system. For instance, if a congested airport is forced to shut down for a short period of time due to meteorological conditions (e.g. thunderstorm), delays increase exponentially. Once the airport reopens, the priority is to land the inbound flights that were waiting in standby patterns (some may be getting low in fuel), which delays outbound flights. The outbound queue can become so substantial that gate access for inbound flights can be impaired, which again exacerbate delays since delayed inbound flights will become delayed (or cancelled) outbound flights. The point is that the lost capacity cannot be effectively recovered. The matter obviously gets worst when a longer weather disruption such as a blizzard impairs whole systems with across the board cancellations if a hub shuts down. Additionally, airport labor, such as baggage handlers, is often unionized and disruptive strikes can be used to pressure for additional benefits and compensation (often the case at airports such as Paris Charles de Gaulle which is notorious for its labor induced disruptions).
It remains to be underlined that like international trade, the growth pattern in air transportation is cyclical and subject to phases of growth and even decline. Commercial and industrial location may change, airlines may decide to change their hubbing strategies and the price of fuel may rise. Assumptions that were made in terms of traffic expectation may thus not be realized. Since air transportation has experienced half a century of almost continuous growth, it is assumed that this process will endure.
4. Airports and Regional Development
Airports are substantial engines of economic activity that have attracted investments to support passenger and cargo flows. This nexus can be referred as an "aerotropolis"; the airport terminal becomes the hub of a cluster of airport-related activities, all of which closely integrated in a transport system composed of highways and transit corridors linking the airport with the central urban district. Three major types of activities are readily identified:
  • Aeronautical activities. Represent the standard operational support of the airport where services to passengers (checking in, security, boarding), cargo (loading and unloading) and planes (gate access, refueling) are undertaken. This can be a frequent source of delays. For instance, due to the propensity of passengers to bring carry-on luggage, flight boarding times have significantly increased. While in the 1970s, it could take about 15 minutes to board a 140 passengers domestic flight, this figure has increased to 30 to 40 minutes in the 2000s.
  • Direct airport activities. Concern the functional support of the airport with distribution centers for air cargo, retail, restoration and hospitality (hotels). The revenue these activities generate is a direct function of the airport's traffic..
  • Indirect airport activities. Relate to a whole range of activities who do not directly service the airport, but would not be present without the large amount of available real estate. They can concern convention centers, office space, shopping and entertainment areas, and residential districts.
Much as the airline industry has been transformed by liberalization in recent decades, the airport business, too, has been buffeted by its own dramatic changes – some of them stemming from the airlines. A few decades ago most major airports and most major 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 lesser degree as many are still managed by airport authorities, there are important instances of privatization and globalization. For instance BAA, which operates London’s three main airports and several others, is now owned by a Spanish construction company.
More importantly, airports compete more fiercely for business than in the past. In this regard, the rise of the low-cost carriers (LCCs) is important because one dimension of some LCCs’ business model is service via lower cost secondary (alternative) airports. In Belgium, for instance, Ryanair and other LCCs have made Charleroi South Brussels Airport a real alternative gateway to the region surrounding the EU capital. By 2012, Ryanair served 60 regular destinations from Charleroi with the airport handling about 5.9 million passengers in 2011 while Brussels National handled 18.8 million passengers. The carrier was originally attracted to the airport by a variety of subsidies and other financial incentives from the local and regional government. 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 are sure to continue to aggressively promote their airports.
Charleroi is hardly the only airport put on the map by an airline. This is particularly true in the air cargo business. The importance of Memphis and Louisville, for instance, in cargo flows is almost entirely attributable to the hubs operated there by FedEx and UPS, respectively. The benefits to the two cities have been enormous and so are 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, airport cities such as Liege and Leipzig have also become freight hubs due to the decision of major air cargo logistics providers to use these airports for their operations.