Airport Evolution

On December 17, 1903, at 10:35 a.m., at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville Wright made the first powered, sustained and controlled flight known in the United States. At this point, texts often consider the evolution of air travel from the perspective of flight, dwelling on the change in aircraft technology or airline comfort and safety.

Rarely told is the plight of poor Wilbur Wright, left standing on the ground. Kitty Hawk was cold and windy that day. The conditions for Wilbur must have been physically uncomfortable as he waited for "Orville's flight." During those brief seconds of flight, Wilbur could not take advantage of a comfortable terminal complete with food vendors, newspaper stands, or enclosed passage from one part of the field to another.

When Orville boarded that aircraft, he could not get on board through a loading bridge and he wasn't assured of accurate weather forecasts. Nor could he plan on landing on a smooth paved runway. On the other hand, Orville didn't have to wait while fifteen flights in front of his took-off. His baggage wasn't lost. And he didn't have to change planes once during his twelve-second flight. Wilbur didn't have to contend with throngs of hurried travelers, bad food or insufficient parking and, when Orville landed, didn't have to search for him at scores of different gates.

This story illustrates that while air travel has changed dramatically over the past 85 years, the airport infrastructure necessary to support the airline industry has also changed just as dramatically.

Airports are huge businesses with millions of dollars in annual revenue and in many cases, such as Detroit Metropolitan Airport, many millions of customers (passengers) each year. All major commercial airports in the United States are owned by units of government.

The reason airports are owned by government is largely a function of history. In the mid-1920s, the few existing airfields were either for military use or for the use of a few eccentrics crazy enough to fly. During that period, a few entrepreneurs determined money could be made in transporting mail and people faster than by other modes of transportation.

Initially, the U.S. mail was the most commonly transported product. Fledgling carriers fought for the right to certain routes for delivery of airmail. As use of airplanes became more common, more reliable places for the aircraft to land and to be serviced were needed. Gradually, as more cities became airmail delivery locations, they added the necessary facilities for these "airlines."

During this development period, it was the U.S. government which was heavily subsidizing the mail and much of the infrastructure at the airfields. Few companies or individuals had the capital to risk on something as unpredictable as airmail.

As a novelty for a privileged few, some airmail carriers began carrying an occasional passenger. This segment of the industry grew slowly until safety and comfort were improved. Consequently, as passenger volume increased, facilities at existing airfields expanded to accommodate larger numbers of customers.

These government-owned airfields financed their expansion by charging a variety of fees, leaving the entrepreneurs in the airline business to invest their capital into new and improved aircraft. For a long time, municipal government was able to keep pace with the demands of the business because the demands were modest. Technology did not require large tracts of real estate for long runways to land huge jumbo jets. Terminals were not yet complex because passenger use and the number of aircraft remained relatively modest.

Some airports from this period are still in use – and not surprisingly their space limitations are very noticeable. Facilities such as LaGuardia in New York, National in Washington, Love Field in Dallas, Midway Airport in Chicago, City Airport in Detroit and many others are testimony to an earlier time in the evolutionary process.

As needs grew, cities began to see airports as a key to economic development. Airports were a link to commerce and symbols of glamour which were important to municipal and business leaders. Huge new airports further from the cities were built to meet growing technological and commercial demands. Airports like O'Hare International in Chicago, Idlewild (Kennedy) in New York, Dallas-Fort Worth in Dallas and, of course, Metro in Detroit were some of the products of this era.

All of these, too, were municipal ventures funded through a variety of fees. Unlike their predecessors, however, these airports were complex and expensive. Some believed that only the public sector could afford the expense of such facilities, due to the availability of lower-cost public bonds.

Now the expense of new and expanded airports has begun to exceed the ability of municipalities to meet the challenges of increased demand. In some areas, regional authorities and even a few states have taken over airport ownership. The last major commercial airport constructed in the United States was the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Airport opened in 1974. In 1988, the people of the city of Denver, Colorado gave their approval to the construction of a new airport and a new airport is likely in Austin, Texas. Some cost estimates for the Denver airport, when completed with 12 runways, run as high as $6 billion. Clearly, airport construction is an enormous and costly enterprise.