Minimizing flight risk and coping with turbulence: success strategies for building airport cities of the future

By Jarendra Reddy | September 18, 2019

Travel is turning into more than just a means of transportation. It’s more exciting than ever before, it’s connecting communities and people, and it’s a massive economic generator. Transit hubs–airports in particular–are consequently transforming in order to accommodate this trend.

Once upon a time, airports were built in the suburbs of cities. Today, they serve as engines for urban growth, running like their own micro cities for the increasing number of global travelers, and stimulating the development of infrastructure that extends to existent cities that they were once isolated from.

Whether through organic growth or calculated design, airport cities are on the rise. The combination of rapid urbanization, globalization, and aircraft technology advancement places airports at the center of humanity’s connectivity ecosystem. In turn, this connectivity contributes to the radical reshaping of economies and urban development in a way that generates prosperity and positive change. Airports can now be leveraged to deliver more than ever before, but sometimes it can be a bumpy ride. Let’s look at eight strategies to help navigate through any turbulence for ultimate airport city development success!

Lead with an ambitious, inclusive vision – Just like a pilot needs a map to his/her final destination, you need a vision that sets a clear direction not only for aviation-related activities but also for robust public sector investment planning and socio-economic development. By having a visionary lead a diverse team that can deliver, you can have a profound impact on guiding both private and public sectors to a mutually beneficial collaboration.

Know your niche, leverage your advantage – In a world where cities are competing for talent, new enterprise establishment, and capital on a global scale, it’s important to know your city’s niche and define your prevailing competitive advantage upfront. What would make Durban more attractive than Johannesburg, Brisbane more attractive than Melbourne? Leverage this advantage and recognize that it can and will evolve over time. For example, a city that is home to unique intellectual property in health care can be an attractive location for pharmaceutical and bio-medical industries.

Agility as opportunity – Airport city plans are instruments used to guide development and investment over the span of several years. Often, these plans are based on forecasts and prevailing investor preferences. In a rapidly changing world, plans need to be flexible in order to adapt and quickly take advantage of future opportunities that may not yet be fully understood, without compromising the value creation of the present.

Talent builds the city – Building brownfield or greenfield airport cities are long-term, multi-generational efforts. It requires diversity in thought. It’s important to be open to new ideas in order to attract new enterprises, drive the creation of new economic sectors, and give continuous direction to a visionary developmental agenda. Beyond infrastructure, deliberate investment in the development of human capital is essential to achieve this.

Infrastructure beyond the airport – The infrastructure that serves the airport is just as important as the airport itself. Transit systems, urban utilities, etc., that support and connect the airport to existing development nodes can also create a skeletal structure around which new urban development can be supported. For example, a new transit link to an airport can also be the backbone of a new transit-oriented urban development corridor that bridges spatial divides that exist in many cities around the world.

Opportunity through aircraft advancement – Innovation in aviation has manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus in competition to dramatically improve the economics of flight. Newer generation aircraft are quieter, more fuel-efficient per passenger, and have longer ranges. While it’s easy to see how this can make existing flight routes more profitable for airlines while being more affordable to travellers, the hidden impact is more profound. Technological advances mean that cities previously lacking in global connectivity can now be viably more connected. Furthermore, large tracts of land previously impeded by expansive aircraft noise footprints can now be more productive with noise-sensitive, potential higher value land-uses. Economies can be transformed if cities are quick to recognize the opportunities created through these technological advancements. Airport cities need to adjust their infrastructure and embrace innovation for the optimal benefit of their residents, with ease of access and health and safety always being top of mind.

Success through collaboration – Airport cities can be capital-intensive and often daunting to implement. They require a multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional, and multi-disciplinary effort, along with commonly required policy changes to bring them into effect. Consequently, it’s important for all stakeholders to be aligned behind a shared vision, with individual priorities harmonized early in the process. Collaborative implementation models, where organizations harmonize their respective activities toward mutual benefit while achieving the shared vision can yield quicker wins than waiting for often-needed policy or institutional changes as dependencies for success.

Clear first steps cut through complexity – Given the complexity of implementing airport cities, not all details need to be resolved at once. It is, however, important to define a starting point. A clear, tangible project or program behind which resources can be mobilized to generate immediate recognizable benefits for all stakeholders involved. Such initiatives should not be plagued by too many dependencies. This allows for the rapid prototyping and testing of institutional and delivery models. It’s sometimes better to start, learn, and improve than to spend too much time developing detailed, static plans in an ever-changing world.

With the ever-increasing relevance of airport cities, thoughtful and diligent application of strategies that yield immediate high impact results and create the ability to take advantage of unknown future opportunities are essential to driving sustainable growth and prosperity for both citizens that inhabit the airport cities and the world they connect to.