Prof. dr. Jacques van Dinteren

Airports are much more than aviation infrastructures. They have become multi-modal, multifunctional enterprises generating considerable commercial development within and well beyond their boundaries. Airport regions are developed as a ‘brand image’ also attracting non-airport linked business. This multi-functional development is often referred to as an airport city. A city in general is multi-functional, but the crucial difference is that the airport city often has no inhabitants and focuses primarily on economic functions.

Potential for an airport city

An airport’s growth prospects and economic impact are determined by the development and size of its hinterland, the regional economy and the number of international connections. The potential and economic and spatial impact of a small airport, for instance Sint Maarten in the Caribbean, differs from that of a large airport such as Heathrow in the United Kingdom. The greater the size, function and importance of the airport, the more possibilities there are for a variety of functions. Based on the relationship with the airport and the cost of land, different airport zones can be distinguished (see figure 1 below). The extent to which living quarters are permitted will be dependent upon legal regulations (especially with regard to environment) and the size of the development. Avoiding an airport city becoming deserted after business hours is one argument to allow for residential areas.

Figure 1: Type of functions related to distance to the airport (source: NACO / Royal HaskoningDHV)

Important centre of economic activity

Rapid commercial developments at and around airports makes them leading urban growth generators. Airport regions are becoming a place to work, shop, trade and do business. It is therefore important to coordinate this process in an orderly manner. Market analysis, concept development, master planning and strategy are all important to make an airport city a success. Properly planned development will achieve positive effects, such as:

  • generating new economic activities and expanding existing ones
  • expanding the economic activities and related turnover, creating multiplier effects that enhance the regional and even national economy
  • providing extra revenue for the airport company and local government, for example through taxes and lease of land and floor space. According to the current experience, non-aeronautical revenue can constitute up to and sometimes more than 50% of the airport’s total revenue
  • adjusting the airport’s image as a transport hub into that of an important centre of economic activity, linking the airport region and the nearby city with the world.


However, these positive effects coincide with various challenges that need to be tackled:

  • the environmental impact of the development and the increase in (air) traffic (regulations and policies)
  • the presence and involvement of many stakeholders and their different roles (requiring consultations and negotiations)
  • lack of clarity about the different roles of the parties involved and the distribution of costs and revenue
  • considerations about where to locate functions: in the nearby city or at the airport (city). In a way, city and airport could become competitors.

These positive effects and challenges are present at the airport and its wider surroundings. Combining these two geographical levels in a development strategy offers a cumulative advantage for the airport and its region.

Five critical success factors for an airport city

  1. Focus on synergy between the airport and the existing city

The airport city concept is often considered on too small a scale. However, the most important factor for a sound master plan is creating synergy between the existing city nearby and the airport. If you create an airport city with all its economic functions in the immediate vicinity of an existing city, the two cities will compete and the airport city will extract energy and programme from the existing city. An airport and a (already present) city need each other. These two economic poles are complementary and interlinking them will bring mutual success. A well-balanced combination of the two will expand the international competitiveness of the region.

  1. Flexibility in plans and accommodation

A strategic reserve of land (an area kept open) for future aviation and non-aviation development in the airport master plan is key. In response to changes in environmental legislation or new technological possibilities in air transport, for example, it is important to accommodate growth and thus plan for future expansion.  The focus should be on trends and scenarios instead of figures and statistics only. Following detailed discussion of scenarios, these can be brought together in a single flexible strategic plan that will offer a range of options for the future. From this, the best mix of functions and measures can be chosen, depending on the situation at that time, during that stage of the development process.

Flexibility is also needed in relation to the growth of established companies. Leasing buildings or floor space instead of buying provides growing firms better opportunities, especially when this is combined with professional real estate management by the airport city organisation.

  1. The need for reachability and a reliable multi-modal infrastructure

Traditionally, roads were the only landside infrastructure at airports. The enormous passenger growth in recent decades has led to congested access roads. Today, a rapid integral transit system is crucial to connect the airport to the city and the existing transport network in an efficient way. Among other factors, regional connectivity determines the growth potential. The transport system ranges from light rail (trams) and undergrounds to local, regional and intercity (heavy) rail and high speed rail. The presence of all these modalities expands the base for airport-related activities and reduces the pressure on locations in the immediate vicinity of an airport. It also enables the efficient distribution of different economic activities, taking into account their relationship with the airport and the city.

It is crucial to maintain and secure this accessibility by monitoring it and improving existing infrastructural links. If done well, this will greatly enhance service levels (smooth way-finding and comfortable transfer between modalities) for passengers, airport workers and visitors.

  1. Differentiation of industrial and business estates

For airports, the airport city concept has provided an opportunity to diversify away from aviation activities and generate non-aeronautical revenue. Apart from airport-related activities (e.g. hotels, transport and distribution firms, airport services), other types of companies will also be interested in locating near an airport, such as knowledge institutes, business and financial services. These companies are attracted not only because of the prospect of international reachability, but in many cases by the modern image of an airport city. Taking into account the links with the airport and specific locational requirements, various kinds of industrial and business estates can be developed at different distances from the airport on a much larger geographical scale than just focussing on the immediate surroundings of the airport. This broader scale also takes into account the previously mentioned synergy between the airport and the nearby city (see Figure 2). The airport can thus attract a wide range of companies and employees. This increases the value and appeal of the airport and its wider environment, creating a strong network of companies and institutes that reinforce each other.

Figure 2: Concept for industrial and business estates for an airport in China (Source: NACO / Royal HaskoningDHV)

  1. Directive planning and regional governance

Directive planning makes sure that the designated programme is developed at the selected locations. With a clear zoning scheme, it is possible to create the perfect conditions for each type of industry. This strategy prevents scattered economic activities, prevents hindrance, contributes to efficient land use and improves opportunities for exchange and interaction between companies. To make this work, a strict admission policy is needed. This can be best organised when one private or governmental organisation owns the business locations in the airport’s vicinity. This also helps to prevent competition between locations.


An airport is no longer a hub for the movement of people and goods, but a generator of regional and national economic development. The critical success factors mentioned above show how strategically important airports can be properly planned. They also demonstrate the importance of an interdisciplinary approach when working on a master plan for an airport city. Combining expertise relating to market research, concept development, urban design, traffic consultancy and airport development will produce better airports and airport regions.

Airports can grow very rapidly. For this reason, flexibility in development plans is key. The incorporation of flexibility means keeping open many options for future development for as long as possible. It implies organising the plans in such a way that opportunities can be combined right up until the last moment. It means that the planning and development team continually tracks developments that affect the plan, tests the foundation for stability and adjusts the plan if necessary.

Last but not least: this is not meant to suggest that all airport cities can be approached in the same way. Airport cities should not be developed by the same general concept and all who are involved have to look for a social and cultural identity of the airport city which fits into the region and nation. When you arrive in an airport city you should not have the effect that some hotels have on visitors, when they wake up in the morning, look around, see the standard design and ask themselves: ‘where am I?’

This blog was prepared in close cooperation with Pauline van Heugten MSc (Royal HaskoningDHV) and NACO. Thanks to Mirjam Wiedemann (WiedemannConsultants GmbH), Pieter van der Horst (Amsterdam Airport Schiphol) and Berkay Ekim (Antalya International Airport) for their comments.

Master Planning for Airport Cities: the factors of success
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