Airports: The Downtowns of Tomorrow

These growing hubs of economic activity aren’t just for tourists and transit anymore.

November 18, 2014

Once viewed primarily as gateways to cities, airports have emerged as economic engines in their own right—and are fueling rapid commercial and residential development in many parts of the world.

That assertion comes from Prof. John D. Kasarda of the University of North Carolina, who during a Nov. 9 session at the REALTORS® Conference & Expo in New Orleans pointed to a host of data about the impact airports are having on global commerce as evidence that “location, location, location” has given way to a new axiom: “accessibility, accessibility, accessibility.”

“If you think of an airport as transportation infrastructure, you’re so twentieth century,” Kasarda said. “The three As have replaced the three Ls in real estate.”

As and other companies increasingly rely on “just-in-time” models to move high-value goods and time-pressed executives place a high level of importance on the ability to efficiently travel between business centers, airports are serving as the cores of fast-developing commercial and residential zones that are giving traditional metropolitan centers a run for their money, said Kasarda, director of the Center for Air Commerce at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Airports are attracting companies that want quick access to air transportation, which in turn is pushing up demand for office space in those areas, Kasarda said. Demand for residential areas located near big airports, such as Dallas-Fort Worth and Washington Dulles international airports, is also strong, spurred by employees of companies with nearby operations who want to live close to work.

Kasarda uses the term “aerotropolis” to explain the phenomenon of population and business centers anchored by airports. “New urban forms are evolving as a result of these airports being business magnets and, in some cases, economic catalysts,” he said.

Kasarda also noted that the sheer number of people who use airports has transformed them from transit places to vibrant retail and entertainment centers. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, for example, serves more people in a typical year than Disney World, Graceland, and the Grand Canyon combined, he said.

This means airport shops often generate more sales per square foot than comparable establishments located elsewhere. Some airports record more revenue from retail activity than from aviation-related operations, according to Kasarda. “They’re becoming urban realms in their own right,” he said. “The city airport is becoming an airport city.”

Sam Silverstein is a former writer-producer for the National Association of REALTORS® based in Washington, D.C.