17 percent of American workers work within 10 miles of a major airport.

As our Richard Florida pointed out in a series of posts last spring, airports play a "substantial role" in the economic growth of American cities. Their ability to facilitate the movement of goods and people may influence urban development as much as highways, railroads, and seaports did in previous centuries. They may also rival nearby central cities as anchors of employment, according to new research.

This insight comes courtesy of John Kasarda, co-author of the 2011 book Aerotropolis, and his University of North Carolina colleague Stephen Appold, in a recent issue of Urban Studies. Appold and Kasarda analyzed employment patterns around the 25 largest passenger airports in the United States. They report "substantial" job concentration within 2.5 miles of these airports — about half that found within 2.5 miles of corresponding central business districts.

In 2009, about 3.1 million jobs were located within 2.5 miles of the 25 major airports, write Appold and Kasarda. Expanding out to 5 miles meant 7.5 million jobs, and expanding to 10 miles meant 19 million. Those figures represent about 3, 7, and 17 percent of all U.S. employment. Meantime wages made up even greater shares of the national average (3.4, 8, and 22 percent, respectively), "indicating that employment near the major airports is relatively well-paid."

On any given day, an average of 26,000 people work a job that directly serves one of the top-25 airports — a figure "comparable with that in many major central business districts," report the researchers. (Atlanta International's 56,000 daily workers are enough to define it as a central city by Census standards.) Four of the 25 airports created enough employment within 2.5 miles to populate their own metro areas. (In the case of Las Vegas, that total nears 300,000 workers.)

The findings generalize a jobs impact near airports found in recent individual studies of metro areas. Appold and Kasarda say the trend held even for airports located a considerable distance from their corresponding city centers, suggesting they've become "employment clusters of their own." About 450,000 jobs exist within 5 miles of Chicago O'Hare (14 miles from the Loop), 395,000 within that range of Dallas-Fort Worth (12 miles from the cities), and 240,000 that close to Dulles International (20 miles from Washington, D.C.).

Somewhat surprising about these airport-employment clusters is that they're sustained by far more than just transport and service workers. Jobs in a number of sectors typically associated with central business districts — finance and insurance, science and technical services, administrative services, even company management — are over-represented near airports, according to Appold and Kasarda's findings. Overall employment growth within 2.5 miles of the top 25 airports exceeded the national average from both 1995 to 2002 and 2002 to 2009. That type of growth creates social needs of its own:

As airports become major employment centres in and of themselves, their employees require a place to live and the full range of urban services, exerting a further influence on urban form.

The takeaway for Appold and Kasarda is that airports serve as very capable employment anchors. Exactly why they do so isn't entirely clear: it may be, as some have stated, that airports are essentially becoming cities of their own. Whatever the reason, the researchers believe that as air travel increases in the coming years — it's "expected to double" in the next three decades — area job growth will do the same.

Of course, that expectation will turn on pressing concerns facing the air industry that aren't addressed in this paper. Implementation of the NextGen aviation system, essential to continued growth in the sector, is lagging behind schedule. Even with NextGen in place, at least 14 major American airports will be so limited by their physical size that they might fail to meet demand. For airports to continue their substantial role in the growth of both cities and jobs, they must first meet some substantial challenges.


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