Connect Airports to Enable Mega-Region Air Travel

In the midst of the ongoing national discussion on high-speed rail, there's one exciting use for high speed rail that should be taken more seriously. This new use would generate economic growth and jobs, ease travel congestion, and positively impact the environment.

The surprising answer? Connecting our nation's airports with high speed rail.

One reason high-speed rail has been slow to gain traction in the U.S. is the uncertainty over its ridership potential and how that affects funding. But high speed express rail between airports would make a much more robust business case, one that may be easier to form consensus around.

The best part about airport-to-airport high-speed rail? It provides a template for the kind of innovative thinking that must be applied to our entire transportation system.

Connecting the Dots

A major reason America's transportation system is falling behind is that our various modes of transportation are only loosely connected. To compete globally, a nation's transportation system must function as an organic whole, greater than the sum of its parts.

The key is to find new and powerful ways to integrate various modes of transportation. Countries in Europe and elsewhere are far ahead of us in this regard. But we can catch up and even move ahead. Connecting our nation's busiest airports with high speed rail is a great example of the possibilities.

The Future of Travel

One of the few positives of the current recession is that it has tamped down air travel, temporarily holding off a crisis in delays and congestion that could put a chokehold on our economy. As we recover from the recession, however, that future will be upon us. Air traffic is already rising, and FAA predicts that the number of passengers flying on U.S. carriers will break the one-billion mark in ten years — a nearly 40 percent increase over today.

To alleviate this impending travel bottleneck, we need fresh thinking and innovative solutions.

High speed rail may offer a path forward by addressing travel congestion while adding jobs and helping to improve the economy —and be financially viable.

Imagine if congested major airports, such as O'Hare, were directly connected to one or more regional airports by high-speed train. Such a train — between O'Hare and Milwaukee's Mitchell International Airport, for example — would be accessed after passengers passed through the security checkpoint.

We can think of it as the equivalent of today's tram systems at many airports, which connect different terminals. This "tram" would take passengers to terminals in another city — usually in about the same time as a short jet flight — or even less. Consider the possibilities that would arise from this airport-to-airport high-speed connection.

As with a number of other major airports, the majority of travelers to O'Hare are actually on their way to somewhere else — O'Hare is a major hub for connections to final destinations. Of the more than 1,100 daily arrivals at O'Hare, about half are small regional jets, each carrying 50 or so passengers destined to change planes and head elsewhere.

If an airport-to-airport high-speed express train were in place, the bulk of these small regional jet arrivals — possibly as many as 300, for example — could be scheduled into Milwaukee, rather than Chicago. In such a scenario, the 15,000 arriving passengers would deplane, take the 35-minute high-speed train trip to O'Hare, and then proceed to their connecting flights — all without having to pass through security again. On the return trip, the reverse would occur. Airline connection schedules would be adjusted to accommodate this model.

Airport-to-airport high-speed rail would open up new revenue opportunities, and create sustainable jobs. In our O'Hare example, consider that we have now freed up 300 arrival/departure spaces at the airport that had previously been used by the small regional jets.

Airlines could take advantage of those open spaces with 300 higher-revenue-generating flights, such as wide-body jets carrying 200 or more passengers, headed to high-demand destinations.

So, instead of moving 15,000 passengers in and out of O'Hare on regional jets, airlines could now move 60,000 passengers on the larger planes — an increase of 45,000 passengers a day. And this would be done without using a single additional arrival/departure space — no new net flight operations at O'Hare.

As a result of additional regional jets flying into Mitchell, there would be an influx of passengers at that airport, most on their way to the high-speed trains to O'Hare. Mitchell would likely expand its infrastructure, creating new, permanent jobs for workers in the terminals and on the tarmac servicing aircraft.

From the passenger perspective, the express train trip would be about 35 minutes between the airports, compared to the average hour-long flight. When we consider that one out of every five flights to O'Hare is delayed, for as much as an average of one hour, this approach could save travelers even more time.

Similar scenarios could play out in the pairing of other congested major airports with airports in their mega-region — such as Philadelphia with Allentown or Harrisburg, Miami with Ft. Lauderdale or West Palm Beach, or San Francisco with San Jose.

It Can Be Done

There is no doubt that building airport-to-airport high speed rail — and any other integrated transportation infrastructure — is a complex undertaking, requiring stable financing, new business models, policy frameworks, legislation, and a host of other elements. But it is well within our nation's ability to achieve. The U.S. has the talent, the engineering capacity, the construction know-how, the processes, and experience to complete major new inter-modal projects of all types. Indeed, the irony is that much of the best transportation infrastructure now being developed around the world is based on American invention and technology.

Contrary to popular belief, we also have the money to build major transportation projects. The surprising new revenue sources that would arise through inter-modal projects — such as airport-to-airport high-speed rail — could help unleash private capital, and take advantage of a wide range of financing mechanisms.

America has a history of doing big transportation infrastructure projects, and doing them well. Indeed, infrastructure projects that integrate our nation's transportation system can be done. And they must be done, if our nation is to remain prosperous. To get there, we must first think big and re-imagine what's possible. Connecting our nation's busiest airports with high speed rail is a great first step.