October 7, 2013

A Theory of Airports

It seems pretty obvious that metropolises that host major air transport hubs (e.g., Atlanta, Dallas, or Chicago) enjoy major economic advantages over metropolises that don't, such as Cincinnati, Cleveland, or Milwaukee. All else being equal, if you are a frequent flyer, you would prefer to live in a metropolis that offers numerous direct flights, rather than having to change planes constantly in Atlanta and other privileged places.

This must have been studied a million times, but I'm not familiar with what rules of thumb have been discovered about which cities tend to become the winners in the air hub competition.

So, here's a theory based on my limited and extremely out of date experience with business travel. Maybe having an airport convenient to the white collar part of the metropolis helps. For example, Chicago’s old Midway airport was built in the middle of the industrial, polluted, smelly (stockyards and slaughterhouses) southwest side. 

But then, mighty O’Hare was built out in the northwest. The wind tends to blow from the north in Chicago, so the wealthy long ago moved out of the South Side for the north side. O’Hare thus turned out to be relatively convenient for the upper middle class.

In contrast, Cincinnati’s main airport is way out in the sticks in Kentucky. I presume business travelers tend to live on the Ohio side of the metropolis, so they probably don’t find the airport’s location as convenient as they would hope in a small metropolis.

Unfortunately, those are the only examples I can think of.


Anonymous said...

Kansas City's airport is far away from most of the metro's white collar workers. And it is definitely not a major hub despite being near the geographical center of the USA.

Anonymous said...

Never knock the small airport. Short (often no lines) and easy parking.

Anonymous said...

Consider Denver's airport which is practically closer to Nebraska than the well-heeled on the front range.

Anonymous said...

Consider also the effects of airline consolidation. When there are only a couple of airlines, they only need a few hubs: Atlanta, DFW, O'Hare have bee the winners in that game, St Louis and Cincinnati (which used to be major hubs) have been the losers.

Anonymous said...

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Unknown said...

Isn't CVG a major hub for Delta and CLE for United?

countenance said...

I thought Cincinnati was a Delta hub.

St. Louis was a TWA hub for a long time, and that was the hook that got TWA to move is HQ to St. Louis from NYC in the 1990s. But when TWA sold out to AA, while AA did keep Lambert as a hub for awhile, (and in fact, the national media, much to the consternation of St. Louisans, called Lambert "Chicago's fourth airport"), pulled out a few years later. Lambert has not been a hub for any airline ever since.

Lambert has a whole lot of St. Louis ghetto between it and the St. Louis city central business district, whether you use the highways or the light rail, and the path between it and the central business district of the suburbs, the St. Louis County seat of Clayton, generally skirts between ghetto and old money suburbs. But none of those problems present if your path is between Lambert and St. Louis's various suburban office parks.

bluto said...

I suspect Cincinnati would be the place to check this theory, since they ceased to be a hub fairly recently.

Also, Kansas City is the best US airport I've been through in years, short security lines, very fast internet, friendly staff.

Darwin's Sh*tlist said...

Major airports are almost always built on the opposite side of major metropolitan areas from the business travelers who will use them the most.

Sure it's convenient to live near it when you travel, but it's awfully loud when you're not. Literally vibrant.

Atlanta's airport is south of town while most of its affluent population lives north of the center city.

Anonymous said...

Maybe having an airport convenient to the white collar part of the metropolis helps.

Right, this is in direct historical contrast to the way Railroad stations used to be built. Over time, the stations became located in the least desirable living places. Hence the term "born on the wrong side of the tracks" came about.

Even today, no one really desires to live near railroad tracks and most nice cool swell places a la Charles Murray's SUPER ZIPS are NOT directly located next to, nearby, or around either railroad stations or railroad tracks.

But the beautiful people don't seem to mind living within range of the airport. Why? Car culture.

Railroads = no cars. Planes = airports which equal cars (parking, rentals, etc) Thus planes equal cars and as the ports need lots of land they're usually out of the way from the downtowns (e.g. high crime districts, etc) whereas railroad stations seem nowadays NOT to be near the nice areas but instead are quite close to South Central and Compton and not near bel air or beverly hills.

Interesting to see how many elite exclusive Silicon Valley hoods are nearby train stations.

Perhaps a slight exception to the rule would be Western CN and Norhtern NJ due to not wanting to NYcommute but yet La Guardia and JFK are built far from downtown and toward better suburbs.

So it holds. Railroads &railroad stations = bad wrong side of tracks.

Airports = better. Car culture, more suburban more land and far away from the wrong sorts.

Foreign Expert said...

Detroit has a surprisingly nice airport.

Horace Staccato said...

The Atlanta airport is built on the site of a race track (1900s-1920s) south of town. Originally the airport was in a solid White blue collar area that was easy to access from downtown. Now, of course, the airport sits in the middle of a lively, vibrant Black/Hispanic hellhole. What is even worse is that the airport is run by the malignant, incompetent Black Junta; the same people that brought you the cheating scandal. But Atlanta as a major hub was locked in decades ago. We must embrace and/or ignore the inconvenience facts.

Anonymous said...

Convenient airports are often capacity-constrained. San Diego's airport is right next to downtown, but it's a relatively small airport with only one runway. Major hubs tend to be sprawling: O'Hare, Atlanta, DFW, Denver, Houston GHWB.

SFO is an interesting exception. It's conveniently located between the city and Silicon Valley and is fairly cramped. Still, its limited area has been developed very intensively, and it's a major United hub.

In the short run, airport convenience may make cities more or less appealing to businesses, but in the long run I think it's the economic, geographic, and demographic importance of cities that determines where the major air hubs are. A hub-worthy city can make a convenient but limited space work, as with SFO. Or they can build a giant complex in the middle of nowhere, as with DIA or Washington-Dulles. Contrariwise, second-tier cities like Omaha and Milwaukee actually have pretty conveniently located and sizable airports, but that doesn't make them global hubs.

Albert magnus said...

Houston's large international airport is in North Houston whereas Hobby is close to downtown. Washington, DC has Dulles to the West of DC with Reagan National just across the Potomac.

Mike said...

In addition to the wind direction, I would want to know if airlines operating out of Midway had to deal with any of the same restrictions that airlines operating out of Love Field in Dallas had to deal with.

I've not been here long enough to know if American Airlines or DFW Airport bought the Wright Amendment from a former congressman of the same name.

I am aware that Meacham Field in Ft. Worth was making noise when Southwest started up at Love.

I guess I'm surprised it was called the Wright Amendment. With all the money available, there were probably several congress critters it could have been named after. The smarter ones probably preferred the anonymity.

Anonymous said...

this is in direct historical contrast to the way Railroad stations used to be built. Over time, the stations became located in the least desirable living places. Hence the term "born on the wrong side of the tracks" came about.

I thought that was more to do with the railroad track being a clear dividing line through a town. Various social divides and differences were always there but the tracks made them more concrete. I didnt think those issues arose from the very presence of the tracks themselves.

Steve Sailer said...

Rail is loud so there is generally a linear microslum alongside the tracks. My wife and I spent a lot of time in economically-priced Lincoln Park townhouses next to the El tracks trying to figure out if we could stand the noise.

cthulhu said...

Re DFW and the Wright Amendment: Jim Wright was congressman (later Speaker) from Fort Worth. Fort Worth is the seat of Tarrant County, TX. DFW Airport is located entirely in Tarrant County. From what I remember, the Dallas business community was much less sanguine about the new airport than Fort Worth / Tarrant County, so Jim Wright went to bat for FW by kneecapping Love Field (located entirely in the city of Dallas, and quite convenient to the entire Dallas business district) via the Wright Amendment. For those who aren't aware, the Wright Amendment forbids any airline operating out of Love Field from providing nonstop service to/from any airport further than the states that immediately border Texas. DFW Airport has become quite an economic powerhouse in the region, but a big chunk of that is because American Airlines relocated its corporate HQ there in the early '80s, and does most of its heavy maintenance there.

San Diego is another curious story. The city business leaders have been trying to stir up a panic for years about its supposedly inadequate airport. But the airport's fantastic location (right across the bay from downtown) more than makes up for its size, IMHO. Plus, SD is hemmed in: mountains on the east, ocean on the west, Mexico to the south, and Camp Pendleton to the north; there's no place to put a new airport. Except if the city worked a deal with the Marines to take over Miramar MCAS; but that would mean a constant stream of air traffic taking off directly over La Jolla, home of the SD movers and shakers (the merely rich live in Rancho Santa Fe). They put up with F-18s out of Miramar because they just don't fly that often, but an airliner taking off every 3-5 minutes? No way. Fortunately, the San Diego citizenry refuses to be panicked by the "business interests" and merrily votes down every attempt to "fix" the airport situation. Would that the rest of CA could develop the same common sense...

agnostic said...

Could vary by region. In the Southwest, the major airports are farther from the upscale / white collar areas.

Phoenix, the regional hub, is in a crappy part of downtown, farther south, while upscale Scottsdale is up north.

Denver -- across state borders.

Salt Lake City -- farther west, while the affluent parts are farther east.

Albuquerque -- in a ghetto area in the south, while the safe/wealthy neighborhoods are up north.

The farther out west you go, the more people want low-density, room-to-breathe-free living. Perhaps even the frequent flyers figure it's worth a small inconvenience to get to the airport, compared to the cost of having a monstrosity in their backyard.

That reflects the pastoralist background of the frontier settlers. Room to roam around.

Back east, people are more from farmer stock, so they don't mind packing in like sardines, living next to a busy noisy mess. Life is so joyless and meaningless for them, they might as well at least get a little added convenience by having quick access to the airport for when they want to split town.

Anonymous said...

MKE is actually in a pretty good location and easy to get to for most travelers including an Amtrak station. Also didn't it use to be a hub for Midwest? I think the real problem with MKE is just too damn close to OHR and as a result MSP is a better hub.

Anonymous said...

I thought Zipf's law explained everything.

Zipf's law is a very tight constraint on the class of admissible models of local growth. It says that for most countries the size distribution of cities strikingly fits a power law: the number of cities with populations greater than S is proportional to 1/S. Suppose that, at least in the upper tail, all cities follow some proportional growth process (this appears to be verified emperically). This automatically leads their distribution to converge to Zipf's law.

Zipf's Law for Cities: An Explanation*

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Not so many big UK airports, but Heathrow is in SW London, generally the wealthiest and whitest zone outside the centre. Gatwick is in the Surrey/Sussex commuter zone. Manchester also in the SW of that city, near the Cheshire commuter belt.

But UK airports may tend to be SW of cities because the prevailing wind is SW. Take off into the wind (away from the city with full blast engines), come into land over the city with quiet engines. On the other hand, #4 and #5 by passenger volume, Stansted and Luton, are East and North of the capital respectively.

Gilbert Ratchet said...

Detroit is a Delta hub, but we all know what's happened to that city.

Anonymous said...


You can access Sky Harbor in Phoenix from Scottsdale (via the 202 loop) in about ten minutes. Sky Harbor also abuts Tempe and downtown Phoenix. The 'crappy part of Phoenix' I assume you're talking about is south Phoenix, which has the I-10 between it and the airport. Of course University Road goes from corporate headquarters to strip clubs and llanteras as you get close to the airport, but oh well.

The bigger story is that Sky Harbor benefits from the redundancy of Phoenix's traffic layout, which seems to avoid the snarls that plague most other southwest cities. Tucson STILL can't get it right and they've been working on the interstate for over 6 years now. In Phoenix you can make it to the airport in under a half hour from the far west valley (Buckeye) or far east valley (Maricopa) outside of rush hour.

Jeff W. said...

I have heard that when people in the South die and go to hell, they have to change planes in Atlanta.

That's a benefit to living in Atlanta, I suppose: going straight to hell.

Camlost said...

What is even worse is that the airport is run by the malignant, incompetent Black Junta; the same people that brought you the cheating scandal. But Atlanta as a major hub was locked in decades ago. We must embrace and/or ignore the inconvenience facts.

Yes, very true.

In Atlanta every few years you will see talk of building a 2nd airport on the far more affluent and whiter North side of the metro, since Atlanta doesn't have a functional 2nd airport like a Midway or LaGuardia, etc.

However, black leadership in Atlanta opposes that tooth and nail, knowing that it will take pork contracts and service jobs away from blacks. Literally, the only white folks working at the airport are the pilots and stewardesses.

Anonymous said...

In Atlanta they saw the future and built a huge airport back in the 70's that's grown as airline travel has grown.

Places like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Cincinnati have or have had hub airports at various points in their history. But they're in the 2 million metro size, rather than the 5+ million like Detroit, Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, and Dallas. They don't have quite as much O&D traffic.

slumber_j said...

LGA is unbelievably convenient the the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which--at least until the rise of Downtown and the UWS over the last ten or fifteen years--is the historical land of the Fat Cat. It has never taken me more than 20 mins. to get there in a taxi, and it typically takes under 15.

Not only is CVG recently de-hubbified and in KY, but it's also an especially long way from Indian Hill and other East-Side places full of prosperous types in Cincinnati.

The best place to live if you're a consultant and have to fly all over the US was figured out a while ago by friend of mine who got his doctorate from MIT for modeling ocean currents: Vegas. The airport is right there in the middle of everything, and there are direct flights to pretty much everywhere. And there's basically no weather.

Dahinda said...

When rail travel was the main mode of transportation across the US, Chicago was the main rail hub of the country. All of the great rail terminals in Chicago were in a roughly square mile area circlng the Loop. All of the great department stores and catalog houses along State Street all grew roughly in the exact center of all of these terminals. Most of the accounts that these stores had were out of town customers. Air travel became the dominant form of cross country travel right around the time O'Hare was built (1956). The Chicago economy now centers in a circle drawn roughly 20 miles out from O'Hare. That is why the North Suburbs are doing better than the South Suburbs and why the North Side has gentrified faster then the South Side.

Anonymous said...

Minneapolis-St. Paul's airport is located out in what I believe is it's largest suburb, Bloomington (population 86,000).

It's ten miles from Downtown Minneapolis.

From Wikipedia:

"Bloomington, considered by many to be a bedroom community, has more jobs per capita than either Minneapolis or St. Paul.[8] Its economy includes headquarters of major companies such as Ceridian, Donaldson Company, HealthPartners and Toro, and major operations of Express Scripts, Seagate Technologies and Wells Fargo Bank. The city is a hospitality and retail magnet, recognized nationally for the United States' largest enclosed shopping center, Mall of America."

The Mall of America was built where Metropolitan Stadium used to stand (home of the Twins and Vikings prior to the Metrodome's construction).

MSP was a major hub for Northwest, who have since been swalloed up by Delta, but it remains a regional hub.

Seems like the Twin Cities got it right.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Steve,

Mostly the wind in the Chicago Land area tends to blow SW to NE, except in the winter of course when it come from above the arctic circle at 100 miles an hour.

Anonymous said...

Weren't NY, LA, Chicago, Atlanta, and etc all dominant urban centers BEFORE the rise of air industry? So, the airport industry seems to have followed.

Anonymous said...

"Detroit is a Delta hub, but we all know what's happened to that city."

Have enough blacks, and there will be white flight without wings.

Anonymous said...

"Rail is loud so there is generally a linear microslum alongside the tracks."

Some buildings are so close to the tracks.


Anonymous said...

Chicago and Atlanta, were major transportation hubs prior to the existence of airplanes. Chicago exists because the Erie Canal and then Illiinois and Michigan Canal provided cheap bulk transport via boat and barge from New Orleans to New York, and because is was iin the middle of the country. Chicago grew as it supported the transportation infrasructure of the US, and continued to grow when railways supplanted canals. The airports, ORD and MDW are another chapter in the continuing role of the city. Urban plannners call this type or growth agglomerration. Atlanta was a rail hub for the South which is why General Sherman burned the place.

It really becomes a math problem. These hubs have the lowest cost for shipping, and thus attract/grow businesses with high transit intensity as a percentage of their cost of delivered product.

Anonymous said...

Here is more on Agglomeration.


Anonymous said...

"Chicago and Atlanta, were major transportation hubs prior to the existence of airplanes. Chicago exists because the Erie Canal and then Illiinois and Michigan Canal provided cheap bulk transport via boat and barge from New Orleans to New York, and because is was iin the middle of the country."

I wonder... suppose US were a virgin territory discovered ONLY NOW when we possess 21st century technology. It is a wide vast wilderness.

Would the same places have been chosen to be the dominant cities? In the old days, there was much reliance on river transportation and trains.
But today, there are so many more options.

Anonymous said...

The patterns would be different, but the fundamentals would be the same.

1) People need to live near resources 1) food 2) water. This favors locating near rich productive land with plentiful fresh water.

2) It is cheaper to locate transportation intensive products centrally to shorten transit distances. This favors central locations.

3) When transporting heavy commodities, the lowest cost is water, rail, truck, and lastly air freight. This favors ports and navigable rivers over landlocked locations. Rail, highways and airports would locate by the best harbors and rivers.

So perhaps St. Louis would be the major hub. Coastal hubs remain NYC, or Philly exist (pick one) SFO, LA no San Diego and Houston (in Texas City) - no Dallas. Boston, New Orleans, Denver and DC never happen. Chicago would be much smaller. Atlanta or Birmingham (pick one)

Just my guesses.

Anonymous said...

Can't get much closer to downtown than Boston's Logan: 3 miles. Usually voted the easiest airport to get to by the travelers' surveys.

Anthony said...

San Diego more than LA - much better harbor, and water is a problem for both. New Orleans would be there, or maybe a little upriver - maybe Baton Rouge is the main port on the Gulf of Mexico instead. St. Louis has some challenges for a river port, so it's doubtful it could replace New Orleans. River transport over short distances isn't that much better than trucks or trains, so we might not get the whole series of fall-line state capitals (Most of the eastern seaboard states, plus Minneapolis, Des Moines, and Sacramento).

linsee said...

Denver's airport is not "across state lines" -- that's a joke, made by Denverites who are still grumpy about the closing of Stapleton, which was very conveniently located but impossibly small.

Anonymous said...

Anon @ 8:26p:

So it holds. Railroads &railroad stations = bad wrong side of tracks

I don't think you have a clue. The swankiest suburbs and neighborhoods in Metro New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco are all near commuter train stations. Westchester County NY, North Shore Long Island, Main Line of Philadelphia, Chestnut Hill/Mt. Airy/East Falls in Philadelphia, SF Peninsula, North/West Sides of Chicago, Montgomery County outside Washington, etc. Priciest real estate in NYC is around Grand Central Station.

You seem to be conflating freight lines to industrial areas and freight yards with passenger lines in desirable suburbs. You also seem to be confusing the fact that passenger service is offered on some of these freight lines to poorer neighborhoods and generalizing them into all train lines.

Freya George said...

Well, never criticize the small airport because they serve short lines of parking but now at large airports also parking problems are solved with the emergence of valet parking Gatwick