Charlotte’s Intermodal Hub

While airports play a significant part in economic growth and stability, the Carolina’s Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) is taking it to an entirely new level. With development of a third parallel runway, an interior rail freight terminal, and a major air cargo complex, CLT is transforming itself into an air hub of the future — all modes available, all of the time. This will place CLT in a unique position with integrated, multimodal capabilities, providing Charlotte with a new foundation for economic activity and a distinct competitive advantage in the global marketplace.

How did Charlotte develop a global vision for the 21st Century — a vision which addresses the regional economy, workforce, and environment — and how is this vision being realized? Therein lies a story of planning, coordination, and execution.

A Stronger Impact

Constructed in 1936 and taken over by the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, Charlotte Douglas International has experienced a long history of expansion since opening a new passenger terminal in 1954. The Airport’s designation as a Piedmont Airlines (later US Airways) hub and the construction of a new runway in 1979, along with a new passenger terminal in 1982 and an 80,000-square foot international and commuter concourse in 1990, gave the airport much expanded passenger capacity.

By 1996, CLT was US Airway’s largest hub in terms of passenger traffic, and the major air passenger center of the Carolinas. Today, the airport is U.S. Airways’ largest hub and ranks eighth nationwide in operations and eleventh in the U.S. in passengers, carrying more than 34 million passengers a year.

With rising passenger growth, however, came the realization in the mid-1990’s that freight carriage was lagging. At the time, Michael Gallis & Associates (MGA), a Charlotte-based strategic regional planning firm, was tapped to develop a ‘Charlotte metro’ master plan that included regional growth alternatives. CLT director Jerry Orr wanted to make sure that the airport continued to play a strong role in the region’s competitiveness, one that would include expanded freight capacity. The year was 1996, and it was almost time for an airport master plan update. Orr wanted to conduct a broader strategic plan before starting the update to help direct the airport’s future as a regional economic engine, and enlisted MGA to help. One of the first things MGA did was to analyze how CLT fit into the larger picture.

The New Global Opportunity

The mid-1990’s were a time of rapid changes. Starting with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, world trade and transportation patterns began a dramatic shift that continues today. Airspace over former Communist nations opened up. Globalization was distributing economic power to new nations, and the formerly Atlantic-centered trade pattern became less pronounced with the rise of Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America.

These developments altered trade and air patterns, and also provided an opportunity for CLT to re-think its role in the U.S. and in the global network. With a rapidly globalizing economy and shifting trade patterns taking place, CLT management sought to take advantage of these changes to anchor the airport as a regional hub for trade and transportation in the growing metro-economy.

Strategic Visioning

A strategic visioning process was undertaken to determine how CLT fit into the area’s economic, transportation, demographic, and real estate development patterns, and how the airport could maximize the relationships between those patterns.

This involved combed through mounds of data and interviewed dozens of Charlotte-area trade, communications, and logistics companies. Key regional stakeholders — including Bank of America, Maersk, Carolina Trucking, Bell South (now AT&T), Duke Energy, and Norfolk-Southern, among others — provided information about the realities of changing global trade and communications networks, as well as where the companies saw their future and Charlotte’s role in that future.

The result was a highly strategic evaluation of the opportunities and challenges for the airport’s growth. The visioning process revealed a number of key findings:

  • CLT’s location near two main Interstates had potential connections to future transportation system lines — a planned rail system, a planned outer loop Interstate, and the main north-south Norfolk-Southern railroad line from Atlanta to the Northeast;
  • CLT could have rail access to three of the East Coast’s major seaports (Savannah, Charleston, and Roanoke);
  • there were significant areas of vacant land adjacent to the airport;
  • the airport’s location on the west side of the city was in close proximity to a sizeable underutilized labor force;
  • major office and industrial concentrations, including freight forwarding operations, were located near CLT;
  • the airport’s many domestic airline connection opportunities were a strong factor in recruiting businesses to the Charlotte area.

A comprehensive, integrated assessment of airport facilities, both airside and landside, revealed that CLT had untapped freight capacity, with significant expansion capability. Further, the airport had enough space, especially if combined with adjacent vacant properties, to develop even more passenger and freight capacity. However, looking into the future, the airport would also need to expand its communications capabilities in order to compete in the 21st century.

Competitive Positioning

Another analysis determined CLT’s competitive position in relation to other airports. At the time, with 120 direct domestic flights but only a few direct international flights, Charlotte was a one-stop city domestically but a two-stop city internationally. Airports that have good domestic and international service become a key element in the competitive advantage of a region, but airports like CLT that have limited international connections (severely restricting international air freight opportunities) need to develop a competitive advantage.

The visioning team sought a way to counter this limitation and still take advantage of the shift in trade patterns, including more diversified trading routes and altered ocean rotations, bringing more goods from South China and Southeast Asia.

During the visioning, it was realized that the large amount of undeveloped land around the airport could be developed by businesses with complementary uses (freight forwarding companies, postal operations, Customs, etc.). The pattern of truck and rail terminals and ancillary services could be repositioned to consolidate them around the airfield, making them an integral part to trade functioning at the airport.

Aligning with this idea was another — modal integration. CLT could take advantage of rail, road, and sea links while building up a concentration of ancillary service industries to become a multimodal hub core for the larger development area. This would provide a unique opportunity to project Charlotte forward and to produce a different kind of facility, one unique to the U.S., and even the world. It could change the traditional way of moving goods, and take the airport’s role in market access, in linking global and national trade flows, to a new level.

Instituting a Plan

A Strategic Development Plan was prepared based on several key goals that would enable the airport to remain competitive in the growing global economy, most important of which were to:

  • build CLT into the type of integrated multimodal hub which would effectively compete for global trade by linking together air, rail, communications, and power; and
  • position Charlotte as the fourth major logistics hub on the East Coast of North America by consolidating all major logistics functions at the airport to increase efficiency and reduce urban truck transfer traffic.

To achieve these goals, it was clear that the airport would need to emerge as a key foundational element for regional economic development. By linking all modes of transportation with ancillary services, relevant government agencies, and other related facilities, the airport could serve as a 21st Century transportation hub, anchoring the region in the emerging global network.

A development plan was prepared for the airport and surrounding acreage, positioning the multimodal center as the core for office and industrial developments. The multi-modal complex would thereby become a magnet for new businesses, strengthen the economic future of the adjacent inner city community by providing a wide range of jobs, and result in significant environmental improvements.


The transformation of Charlotte Douglas International impacted changes on the airfield and beyond, including ...

Airfield. The plan called for, and in 2010 the City of Charlotte opened, a third parallel runway at CLT (18R/36L), providing a high level of capacity and inherently low delays. The new runway allows triple simultaneous aircraft operations and is expected to save an estimated $65 million in airline delay costs annually.

Terminal and landside. Given expected growth in passenger activity, the plan includes significant terminal expansions. CLT now has 91 airline gates to serve domestic and international passengers. The city incrementally added these gates, keeping costs low for the airlines and customers. In the near future, the terminal passenger processing areas will be expanded and the terminal access and curbside roads will be relocated and expanded.

Cargo facilities. The new runway is widely spaced (separation of 4,300 feet from the center runway) and this provided an opportunity for infill development. To make efficient utilization of this property, CLT is developing an integrated rail yard in a north-south orientation, connecting the Atlanta-Washington mainline with the Charleston mainline. Existing cargo facilities located south of the terminal area will be relocated to this infield area, creating a landmark cargo hub where all modes of transportation are available. Notably, the excavated soil from the railyard area was used to balance the runway construction site, with significant cost savings.

Environmental. The new freight center ultimately will provide long-term environmental benefits to the region. Centrally locating all freight and cargo activity on one campus allows shippers to significantly reduce “drayage” (the local transfer of cargo between modes and locations). Not only does this help maintain lower shipping costs, it removes vehicles from regional roadways, helping to minimize congestion as well as air emissions associated with these truck trips.

Economic Impact

As Charlotte Douglas International has grown, positive economic benefits have continued to accrue. The airport has developed into a significant employment center, providing a wide range of jobs from entry level up through professional positions. It is considered by the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce and Carolinas Regional Partnership to be the most important asset the region has to attract business.

In addition to employment, the expanding passenger and freight activity have contributed to regional economic stability and provided opportunities across the area. The airport, per 2004 data, is estimated to contribute more than $10 billion to the regional economy. More than 100,000 jobs are attributed directly and indirectly to the airport.

While economic impact studies are useful tools in trying to assess the portion of the regional economy that can be attributed to the airport, the actual impact is far larger as many immeasurable impacts such as attraction of new headquarters or businesses are not classified as direct or indirect. Thus the “real” impact tends to be much greater than current models would indicate.

Even in the face of accommodating growing passenger and cargo activity, constructing a new runway, and upgrading the terminal area, CLT has maintained a highly cost-competitive financial position. With a highly favorable bond rating and one of the lowest airline costs per enplaned passenger, CLT is among the lowest-cost large hub airports in the US.

The principles of CLT’s 1997 strategic plan set out several goals: reaching global markets, integrating modes, building a new platform for economic activity, creating jobs, and having a positive environmental impact. Some 13 years after the airport’s strategic planning, CLT has developed support infrastructure and service capabilities and is on the cusp of achieving these goals. Along the way, annual airport activity has grown to nearly 35 million total passengers, 509,000 aircraft operations, and 120,000 total tons of air cargo.