Just five metro areas move nearly 40 percent of all U.S. international passengers.

The world is becoming more global and more urban, and airports are key to its connective fiber. John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay argue that airports underpin a whole new aerotropolis model for economic development that is reshaping economic growth and development in ways that are similar to what the automobile did in the last century, and railroads and waterways did before that. As I wrote here on Atlantic Cities in May, airports indeed have huge influence on urban economic development: they have similar impacts as that of high-skilled college grads (a factor that economists suggest is central to national as well as urban growth), as well as the even larger impact of the high-tech industry.

Chart courtesy of "Global Gateways: International Aviation in Metropolitan America"

A recent report from the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program takes a close look at the role of "global gateway" airports and air travel in the United States and around the world. Written by Brooking's Adie Tomer and Robert Puentes and Michigan State University's Zachary Neal (read our recent chat with Neal on city-based social networks), the report tracks global air travel across U.S. metros and to major international destinations using data provided by technology consulting and reservation software company Sabre Airline Solutions on detailed travel records for international itineraries entering and leaving the U.S., as well as data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) on passenger counts for flights into and out of the U.S. going back to 1990s.

Chart courtesy of report, "Global Gateways: International Aviation in Metropolitan America"

As the world has globalized, the U.S. has seen a dramatic surge in international air travel. In the two decades spanning 1990 to 2011, international air travel to and from the U.S. more than doubled, from 75.5 million to 163.7 million passengers. That growth rate was more than double the rate in domestic air travel and economic output and far exceeded that for population (24.5 percent) over this same period.

Chart courtesy of report, "Global Gateways: International Aviation in Metropolitan America"

But the growth in global air travel was highly concentrated across U.S. metros — airports in the 50 largest U.S. global gateway metros moved more than nine in 10 Americans traveling to foreign countries in 2011. Those in the 25 largest metros moved more than three-quarters (77.7 percent) of all global passengers, the 10 largest accounted for over 60 percent, and just the five largest — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, and Philadelphia — moved 38.5 percent. And, just 17 global gateway metros accounted for a whopping 96.6 of international "through-passengers," or people who fly to or from an airport when that airport is not a start or end destination. Those same 17 metros also served as the point of final origin and destination for nearly three-quarters (72.8 percent) of all Americans travelling internationally. As the report notes:

Of those gateways, New York is in a class by itself. The nation’s largest metropolitan area hosts 20.8 percent of all international passengers, equal to 31.7 million passengers in 2011. To put this number in perspective, more passengers start or end their trip in New York than all passengers in the 81 metropolitan areas at the bottom of the 95-metro list. That collection of 81 includes some of the country’s biggest aviation centers, such as tourist-heavy Orlando and Las Vegas and fellow gateways in Philadelphia and Phoenix.

While New York stands alone, the other gateways still individually move significant shares of total passengers. Over 10 percent of all international travelers start or end their journey in Miami or Los Angeles. Those two metro areas benefit from more connections to their southern and western neighbors, respectively, than any other metro area as discussed below. Other large economic centers—San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington—also move at least 3.5 percent of all international passengers. Major airline hubs in Atlanta and Houston each produce shares over 2.0 percent.

The report also identifies the major destinations to which Americans are traveling.

Chart courtesy of report, "Global Gateways: International Aviation in Metropolitan America"

London tops the list, followed by Toronto, Cancun, Tokyo, and Mexico City. Seoul-Incheon, Paris, Vancouver, Montreal, and Frankfurt round out the top 10. The international gateway airports Americans are traveling to are almost as concentrated or spiky as the ones they depart from. According to the report: "A group of just 200 international metropolitan areas are responsible for 93 percent of all air passenger travel to and from the United States. A subset of 20 metropolitan gateways redistributes 76 percent of all international passengers requiring an international transfer point."

Air travel grew substantially between the U.S. and some of the world's most rapidly-growing economies, increasing by 144.0 percent to China, 136.4 percent to Brazil, and 88.8 percent to India, as well as particularly to rapidly-growing or economically important global metro centers such as Shanghai (up 172.0 percent), São Paulo (up 142.5 percent), and Abu Dhabi (up nearly 300 percent).

Ultimately, the study notes that the connective fibers represented by these global gateway routes are the most structurally important parts of America’s global air travel system and a key component of the movement of people, goods, and ideas across the global economy.

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