Airports are a central component in urban and regional economic development.

Airports are more than just a means of moving people or goods. They are a central component in urban and regional economic development.  

Airports serve as key anchors of a new aerotropolis model of economic development, according John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay, that promises to “shape business location and urban development in the 21st century as much as highways did in the 20th century, railroads in the 19th and seaports in the 18th."  Airports play a key role in "city connectedness," joining key hubs of the global economy, according to Zach Neal of Michigan State University. In fact, the terms "great city" and "port city" were synonymous until the 20th Century, as Peter Hall points out in Cities in Civilization.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting about airports, their locations and their effects on economic development. Today, I begin with a look at the key airport locations across the United States and Canada.

With the help of my Martin Prosperity Institute colleagues Charlotta Mellander and Zara Matheson, I used detailed data from the Airports Council International to track the geography of airport activity across major metros in U.S. and Canada.

The first map, below, charts metros by the total number of flights that pass through them. Los Angeles takes the top spot followed by New York, Phoenix, Chicago, and Atlanta.

The second map charts metros by the total number of passengers that pass through their airports. This map is somewhat similar to the first but not the same. New York takes the top spot here, followed by Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Miami.

But when we chart metros by the passengers they handle relative to their populations, or on a per capita basis, the results—and the map—are completely different. Now Charlotte, North Carolina, takes the top spot, followed by Las Vegas, Denver, Salt Lake City, Orlando, and Atlanta. Large metros fall much farther down the list, with Chicago in 17th place, Los Angeles in 34th, and New York in the 27th spot. Of course, some of this is because airlines pick their hubs based on location and cost as well population size. Charlotte, for example, is a hub for U.S. Airways. Millions of passengers pass through its airport without ever setting foot in (or spending money in) the city.

The fourth map charts metros by the total amount of cargo that passes through them. Now the rankings are completely different. Memphis, home to FedEx, takes the top spot, followed by Anchorage, New York, Louisville, Miami, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Again, this isn’t surprising. Aside from the largest metros, there is considerable specialization of airports in terms of those that handle people versus cargo. Also, cargo hubs are sited based on broad logistical considerations as opposed to the size of the local marketplace. FedEx didn’t choose Memphis as its hub because it delivered so many packages to neighborhoods near Graceland.

Next time, I'll examine the distance between airports and their closest downtown cores.

Top image: A terminal at Miami International Airport, by SeanPavonePhoto /

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