27 Feb An architect who’s helped design more than 60 airports around the world explains why America’s are so terrible
- New airport projects in the US face numerous roadblocks along the way.
- According to veteran airport architect Keith Thompson, new airports face four major challenges.
- They range from government regulation to the way these projects are funded.
In spite of our many complaints about the state of air travel in the US, Americans are flying more than ever. As a result, our airports are bursting at the seams with business travelers and holiday goers.
The nation’s runways are overwhelmed by the number of planes that need to take off and land every day. Even with an intricately choreographed approach and departure sequences, congestion is almost inevitable.
Three of the six busiest airports in the world can be found in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
While the last major international airport built in the US, Denver International, opened its doors more than two decades ago.
During which time new airports, shining palaces of aviation, are popping up all around the world. China, alone, has roughly four dozen airports in development.
The reality is that America needs new airports with more runways and bigger terminals. Yes, there are projects underway around the country that are trying to address the problem. The new $4 billion Delta Air Lines terminal at LaGuardia Airport is a great example of this.
Still, infrastructure upgrades just aren’t happening at a pace commensurate with the growth in traffic.
So what’s stopping us?
To find out, we asked someone who would know first hand. Keith Thompson is firmwide aviation and transportation practice area leader at Gensler, one of the world’s leading airport architects. The firm’s work includes JetBlue’s Terminal at JFK International and the recent renovation of Terminal 2 at San Francisco International Airport.
Over his thirty year career, he’s worked on more than 60 airports around the world.
And according to Thompson, there are four major challenges associated with the development of a new airport in the US. They range political to pure economics.
The American democracy slows down new airport
The first of those challenges is also one of the core tenets upon which our nation is built: democracy.
The democratic process allows for discussion and input from all parties affected by large-scale infrastructure projects like airports.
In the US, unlike some places around the world, “you can’t just tell a village that we’re going to move you and start the bulldozers,” Thompson said in a recent interview with Business Insider.
“Developing a public facility in the United States with our legal system and environmental regulations makes it a much more difficult road to hoe.”
Regulations pose a challenge
This leads us to the second of the challenges. The regulatory environment. Government regulations designed to protect Americans from the harm caused by the arrival of a few hundred commercial airliners can also slow down the pace at which our nation can build new airports.
Issues such as the environmental impact of increased noise pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and the degradation local air quality must be assessed before a project can move forward.
America is not alone, this is something confronted by airport developers around most of the developed world.
The way US airports are funded affects where they are located
The third challenge has to do with cost and the way airports are financed in the US.
Traditionally airports around the world been funded through ties to local or national governments. “In the US, because airports have, at least traditionally, been funded by revenue bonds backed by the airlines, airlines have some say in whether new airports proceed or not,” Thompson said.
Ideally, you want to build an airport in areas where you don’t have objecting neighbors and environmental limitations, but with lots of cheap land. This means quicker development and lower cost.
Unfortunately, most of the locations that fit the description are in sparsely populated areas. And that’s not where airlines want to be.
“The airlines, by and large, want to operate where there’s a strong originations and destinations base,” the veteran architect said.
This means a new airport must be located near a major metropolitan area so that there is enough business coming from people starting or ending their trip at the facility in addition to connecting traffic.
Older airports have to shut down so new airports can survive
Even if the airport is located near a metropolitan area, the airport would still, by necessity, be located further away from the city.
But if there’s an existing facility closer to the city, it needs to be shut down in order for the new airport to be economically feasible.
“In order to make it economically viable for people to move to a newer, less convenient, and probably higher cost airport, you can’t have a lower cost alternative in their backyard,” Thompson told us.
For example, when the Denver International Airport opened, authorities shuttered Stapleton International which was located just a few miles away from downtown Denver. In July 1998, Hong Kong all air service shifted from the old Kai Tak Airport to the new Hong Kong International Airport built on land reclaimed from the South China Sea.