The Aerotropolis: How Airport Cities are Changing the Urban Landscape
Blair Hanuschak

Airports are vital assets to their home cities, more so than just a critical piece of infrastructure. They drive economic development, job growth, and are the gateway to many cities, often providing visitors’ first and last impressions.

Many airports are evolving into “airport cities,” which encompass the airport (terminals, apron, and runways) and on-airport businesses such as air cargo, logistics, offices, retail, and hotels. The airport city is at the core of the aerotropolis, a new urban form evolving around many major airports. Time magazine has even designated airport cities as one of “10 ideas that will change the world.”

Successful airport cities respond and adapt to a dynamic, ever-changing environment with innovative programs and services that meet the needs of all of their stakeholders. Some of the trends we’re seeing include:

Passenger Experience. Expanded concessions and amenities that provide high-quality food and beverage options, retail, hotels, and business and leisure services enhance the passenger experience. Technology is improving passenger processing through the use of interactive IT with social media, apps, and beacons that are all mobile-accessible. Well-designed public spaces are open and airy, clean, well-furnished, and they welcome passengers so that they enjoy their travel experience.

Connectivity. Airports are expanding options to get to and from their facilities, through the addition of mass transit connections between the airport and the surrounding community. Airports like Denver, Toronto, Orlando, and Washington Dulles have built or are building rail connections to their downtowns. Airports like Tampa, Atlanta, Houston, Newark, Los Angeles, and Orlando are building and improving automated people mover (APM) systems to provide better connectivity between airport terminals, and between off-site facilities like remote parking garages, consolidated rental car facilities, multi-modal transportation centers, and hotels.

Airlines. Airline consolidation has changed the dynamics of how they operate at many airports, based on new routes, aircraft fleets, operations, and customer needs. Customer service enhancements through branding, reward programs and amenities, mobile enabled technology, and upgraded terminal facilities allow airlines to differentiate themselves and build customer loyalty. These enhancements, combined with operational improvements to baggage and ground handling systems and logistics, have allowed airlines to prosper in recent times.

Sustainability. Initiatives such as reducing the aviation industry’s carbon footprint are underway across the world. Installation of alternative energy sources like solar panels, wind turbines, and the use and support of alternative fuel vehicles are creating energy savings for airports and allowing them to become more environmentally friendly, in places like Minneapolis, Denver, and Tampa. Converting older building systems to newer, more energy-efficient systems is also providing payback to airports and the environment.

Public Private Partnerships (P3). Large Design Build Finance Operate and Maintain (DBFOM) projects are getting underway in New York (LGA) and Los Angeles (LAX), with more to come. Airports looking for access to capital, speed of delivery, and long-term certainty with regard to O&M costs are turning to privatization to meet these needs, while private investors benefit with predictable returns.

Today, virtually all of the commercial functions of a modern metropolitan center are found on or near most major air gateways, fundamentally changing them from ‘city airports’ to ‘airport cities’.

Blair Hanuschak / P.E.
Blair is a Senior Principal and Managing Director of Aviation Projects with Walter P Moore’s Structures group in Washington, DC.