Airports Becoming Cities

MEMPHIS — Officials representing some 40 countries met here in April for the Airport Cities conference, further building momentum for the concept of the airport as “aerotropolis”, a term coined by Dr. John Kasarda, Ph.D., a director at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. They essentially concur with FedEx Corporation CEO Frederick W. Smith who says, “The biggest economy today is the economy of international trade.”

Globally, the concept of an aerotropolis is in play in Hong Kong, Amsterdam, Incheon, Singapore, Dubai, and elsewhere. In the U.S., the concept is beginning to get traction, and Memphis International Airport (MEM) has been identified by Kasarda as the first true American aerotropolis. In fact, the city and the airport today use that term in their marketing.

Comments Larry Cox, president and CEO of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority that oversees MEM, “We really never thought of ourselves as an airport city. Dr. Kasarda had an article that said Memphis was the only true aerotropolis in the United States. There were a number of them in Europe and Asia, but Memphis was the closest thing.

“That’s how we learned about the whole concept. So we said, we need to educate ourselves on this. We went to our first Airport Cities conference in Frankfurt and said, yeah, this looks a lot like us.”

Cox says that the airport cities concept recognizes that airports are large players in the role of economic development. It used to be that an airport was there to serve the city; and now airports are becoming cities of their own, he says.

Says Cox, “Now you see these huge airports that are purposely being built on a greenfield site that have all the characteristics of a city, including residential. It seems like every year or two there’s a new big, modern airport that’s being built. It’s a concept that I think was slow to catch on, but I think in the past five or six years people have recognized the true value of an airport and what it can bring to the community.”

Kasarda says that the aerotropolis concept brings with it a change in thinking on the role of the airport. “Airport master planning itself must change,” he says. “Basically, airports must do business the way business does business.”

Cox agrees that adoption of the aerotropolis concept inherently brings with it a change in how to plan for the airport’s future. “It does in that instead of looking at just what’s inside our fence line, it’s almost more important to collaborate with the stakeholders outside the fence line,” he says.

“In order for the airport to succeed to its fullest extent and the region to succeed, we need to have connectivity with the other modes of transportation and need to plan. We need to be all on the same page regarding future plans so that roads, railroads, the airport, and the river are working together to provide the best product so you can attract more new business.

“We’ve always had collaboration here, but this has really put a fine point to that collaboration. It’s one of the reasons that Memphis is doing very well.”

The adoption of the concept, and the connectivity that FedEx brings, has Memphis and airport officials inter-connecting more closely with other international airports, according to Cox. “The airport that we’ve always kind of looked at is Amsterdam Schiphol, partly because they’re a true airport city. The airport not only holds and operates the airport but it’s got all the commercial real estate, hotels, convention centers — all in one location.

“And now, as we’ve come to partner with Paris, we’ve developed a great affinity with Paris Charles de Gaulle and also Guangzhou in China. The thing that brings it together is all three are FedEx hubs. We think there’s a lot of commonality there and we’re working together with those other two airports to partner on economic development.”

Growing interest in the U.S.

During the conference, U.S. Representative Steve Cohen, who represents the Memphis region, told attendees he is introducing two pieces of legislation to forward the aerotropolis cause. “It’s the first-ever aerotropolis legislation,” says Cohen. That said, Airports Council International-North America president Greg Principato opened the conference with a warning that the U.S., long the leader globally for things aviation, is quickly falling behind when it comes to airport funding and development.

Comments Principato, “Governments all over the world are working to create conditions for meaningful investment in infrastructure. Airlines in many parts of the world engage in this process as partners, working with airport officials because they know that investment in airport infrastructure is critical to their being able to profitably perform their function in this global economic puzzle.

“But there is one glaring exception to this trend, right here, in the United States. Rather than understand the need to invest in infrastructure the U.S. government actually stands in the way of airports and local communities who want and need to finance infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, besides Memphis, cities that are investing in the aerotropolis concept include Detroit, Indianapolis, Dallas/Fort Worth, and Denver.

John Clark, director of the Indianapolis airport system, relates that officials there were introduced to the aerotropolis concept following a study on the future best use of land at IND, following the opening of a new passenger terminal. “We discovered along the way that what an aerotropolis will really do is organize your development efforts,” says Clark.

At Denver, which is currently constructing a rail line from downtown to the airport, manager Kim Day calls the 53-square mile footprint of the airport “an unbelievable asset.” And, the airport recently completed its first-ever strategic plan and Day expects the introduction of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner to bring non-stop connectivity to Asian markets, central to the aerotropolis concept moving forward.

The FedEx perspective

Back at Memphis International, Doug Cook, VP of International Planning and Engineering for FedEx Express, says that the “three-hub strategy” of MEM, Guanzhou, and Paris de Gaulle ties in well with the aerotropolis idea. “The aerotropolis concept can leverage what those facilities bring to those airport cities,” he says.

“A foundational element of an aerotropolis is it allows you to bring together those components of planning for an airport city. Those various components include urban planning; airport planning; and the business strategy that’s wrapped around it.

“And there’s a direct economic benefit of having an express hub at Charles DeGaulle as well as Memphis and Guangzhou, but there’s also that indirect economic benefit. And it really kind of acts as a catalyst to allow you to pull those together.

“When we’re talking about urban planning we’re talking about free trade zones; skilled labor development. That’s an economic investment that the local area and the region benefit from as part of the airport city.”

Looking at long-term airport planning, Cook says FedEx wants to be up to speed on what the facility will be developing and how FedEx over the long term can utilize the services and capabilities of that airport to meet the needs of its customers.

He adds, “What an airport city is looking at is, how do the stakeholders work together to make sure that the economic benefits are the greatest that can be obtained — the whole is greater than the sum of its parts?

“Think how airport cities are going to compete on a global basis.”