The Impact of Public Opposition on Airport Development

Dec. 18, 2012
Whether it’s a new airport development being brought to a location where it’s desperately needed or an expansion to an existing airport to keep up with demand, public opposition almost always shortly follows

Public opposition to airport developments is inescapable. Whether it’s a new airport development being brought to a location where it’s desperately needed or an expansion to an existing airport to keep up with demand, public opposition almost always shortly follows. And it happens everywhere. Just a quick look historically shows that from the Heathrow Airport expansion project in the UK to the rejected commercial airport conversion proposal of El Torro Marine Base in California that airports can be especially susceptible to public opposition. So what exactly is it that opponents to airport developments resist? Why can public opposition to such projects be so intense, even when airport projects are beneficial to the communities they are coming to? Who are the key players that make it possible for a vocal minority to block major projects? And, of course, what can be done to oppose the opposition?

NIMBYISM & Airports

There is a strong precedent for NIMBYISM or “Not in my backyard” type resistance in response to airports. In the case of the rejected El Torro airport conversion proposal for example, despite strong support for an international airport, a small, but well organized minority of residents from Southern Orange County were able to defeat local measures for an airport in favor of a park. Why? Southern Orange County residents feared that it would hurt property values. It’s clear that it wasn’t necessarily airports that these residents opposed. Rather, it was that the airport would be located near them; and more so, that a new airport could have potentially affected their standard of living. Never mind that an airport development would have had extraordinary economic benefits for Orange County as a whole.

A Few People, A Big Difference

In the previous example, just a small minority of residents actively opposing an airport development were able to defeat the project entirely. This shows how potentially dangerous public opposition can be, but it begs the question of how? How could a few people defeat such a big proposal? Small public opposition can become big public opposition in very short order. For example, while the Southern Orange County residents’ main reason for opposing the airport proposal was maintaining property values, they also cited noise pollution and environmental concerns as a way of gaining support from a larger audience. They also took their project to their local governments and community leaders who have a large impact on how receptive residents of communities are to new projects.

Opposing the Opposition

So how can airport developers counter harmful public opposition? At Public Strategy Group, we have found that the most successfully way to counter public opposition starts by simply informing the residents of communities about the benefits that airport developments can bring. All too often, the majority of the public doesn’t have both sides of the issues affecting their communities. As a developer, community outreach can substantially weaken the momentum of opponents giving residents only one side of the story. Airport developments are large ventures, and often require government participation and cooperation in order to be successful. In the case of the El Torro airport proposal, Northern Orange County residents overwhelmingly supported the proposal, but they weren’t as active in reaching out to the local government as Southern Orange County residents were. Encouraging communities who support airport developments to work with local government can mean the difference between project approval and project rejection.


So why does it matter? When it comes to big developments like airports, there can be so many things to consider like budgets, blueprints, builders, contractors, codes, environmental reports, permits, not to mention who to call to get all of those things done, that it can be easy to forget one of the most important groups of all, the public whom the airport is intended for, and the crucial role they play. At Public Strategy Group, a leading public affairs firm, we recognize the importance of grassroots campaigns for community outreach and issue advocacy. We work with local governments and the public in order to minimize public opposition and generate government, media, and public support for your airport development.  

About the Author

Al Maiorino